Three productions being mounted on local stages this weekend speak directly to today's audiences about topics that explain, in various ways, our relationships with the world around us: A revival about the crumbling dreams of yuppiedom, a study of a famous homosexual's losing battle against homophobia, and a new comedy making a case for romance among seniors.
Producer/actress Devin Russell has been staging productions for the past three years and says she always tries to pick plays that deal with a past experience, something that's close to her. The loss of her brother to AIDS last year made that connection when she chose Richard Greenberg's 1988 yuppie comedy "Eastern Standard," opening Friday at the Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre in Burbank.
"I didn't want to do some real heavy drama about AIDS, and AIDS is not what the play is about. It's just an undertone, and it was a way for me to still connect and still deal with my past experience."
Russell explains that there are several messages in the comedy.
"So many people," she says, "have good intentions, and they all want to do good things for people, but they have no follow-through. It's also about realizing that and undoing that."
Director Michael Jung, taking time off from his post as production coordinator for the Center Theatre Group, says the play is also about the pressures that economic security can bring, because people tend to think the wrong way, that economic prosperity really can alleviate those pressures. In many ways, the CalArts graduate feels, it increases the pressure.
To Jung, the core of the play evolved from the '80s fascination with causes, frequently "the rain forest, save the homeless, all the things that were going on politically and socially.
"And it came out of these young people," Jung says, "who had a wealth of money and didn't really know how to use it, but it's relevant to 1995, particularly to Hollywood, and the superficial nature of people in this town, and this industry, and how they relate to each other. And how they try to function in a way that is helpful to society. But it's really geared toward self-interest. The play allows us to step back and look at something through the lens of history, and yet apply it to our own community and our individual selves."
Looking back through that same lens of history, and based on court accounts of the 1895 Oscar Wilde trials and his own writings, "The Importance of Being Wilde" is a firm reminder of how far the gay community has come in the century since Wilde's destruction at the hands of a homophobic society, and a reminder that history could repeat itself.
Actor Malcolm McDowell first performed the Wilde reading last spring at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club to enthusiastic audiences and felt the reading would be a perfect benefit for Ojai's Oak Grove School's new Arts Center Building. He mentioned it to friend and fellow actor Scott Bakula and Bakula agreed to play the Interlocutor who questions Wilde. Both McDowell and Bakula have children attending the school.
Two readings of the work will be given this Saturday at the Forum Theater in the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
"It's an important subject to bring up today," McDowell says. "It's very poignant. Of course, mixed in with this seriousness, is this incredible language of Oscar Wilde. It's brilliant language, and very funny, and very sad."
McDowell says he loves the school as much as his children, Lilly and Charlie, do. "It's given my children so much really."
How much children owe their parents is one of the questions playwright Mary Jane Roberts asks in her comedy "Frogs," opening Friday at Theatre West. Another is how free children should allow their parents to be.
Roberts' experiences teaching senior citizens led her to explore the options open to them.
"The play focuses on a romance between seniors," Roberts says. "Oftentimes we just dismiss people who are over the age of 60--in L.A. over the age of 24--for any kind of romantic, lively involvement. They're vital and alive and as full of energy as the rest of us."
One of her messages is that people can't discount a romance at any age. "It's also," she says, "about the conflict between the baby boom generation and their parents. Another message is that the younger generation feels they have to start acting as parents to their parents."
As to senior romance, Roberts says, appearances don't count. "One has to fall in love with the inside of someone else for something good to happen. The Beauty and the Beast idea, a bit of the Frog Prince."
By the way, while seniors and their grown children can see "Frogs" on Theatre West's regular schedule, there are children's matinees every Saturday that explain the same idea to young audiences through Storybook Theatre's production of "The Princess and the Frog."
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* "Eastern Standard," Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $15. (818) 754-4360.
* "The Importance of Being Wilde," Forum Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Thousand Oaks. Saturday only. $25 and $40 7 p.m. performance. $25 & $75 9 p.m. performance. Tickets in advance only, (805) 497-8607.
* "Frogs," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City (across from Hanna-Barbera Studios). Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; Saturday matinees Dec. 23, Jan. 6, 13, 2 p.m. $15. (213) 851-7977.
* "The Princess and the Frog," Theatre West (see above). Saturdays, 1 p.m. Indefinitely. $7. (818) 761-2203.