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Weekend Escape

San Diego, Center Stage

Curtain rises on a theater-filled getaway and a new Gaslamp Quarter hotel.

March 25, 2001|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Larry Gordon is an assistant Metro editor for The Times

We visited rural Ireland and urban Brooklyn on a recent weekend. Not bad tracks, considering we never boarded a plane.

Instead, we did what we have long wanted to do: drive to San Diego and let the wonderful theater companies there transport us further through time and space.

My wife, Leda, and I have visited San Diego for summer beach vacations and, in between family cookouts and bicycle rides, usually have squeezed in a night of theater. But those were enjoyable afterthoughts, even to the devoted theater-goers that we are. (Leda is a former actress who appeared on Broadway, and I'm a reformed theater crasher who spent my teenage years being slipped into Broadway shows by friends working as ushers.)

So why not plot a getaway around San Diego theaters on a winter weekend when the ocean isn't as tempting? After all, San Diego has become a testing ground for Broadway. Witness this season's triumph of the "Full Monty" musical after its tryout at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park and the revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

San Diego has scores of theaters (look at http://www.sandiegoperforms .com). We stuck with the big names as insurance. Because the season at La Jolla Playhouse doesn't start until May, we concentrated on the Globe Theatres and the San Diego Repertory Theatre, both of which had two shows running. We chose the Tony Award-winning "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at the Rep (which also was staging the African-themed "Kuumba Fest 2001'). And we gambled on the lesser known "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" at the Globe, partly because of good reviews. (The alternative was "The Woman in Black.') We phoned a few days ahead, charged the tickets ($39 each for "Beauty Queen," $38 each for "Crumbs" with fees) and waited for the weekend.

On the appointed Saturday we drove from Los Angeles to the Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, a 252-room, 12-story hotel that opened in May near the waterfront. I'm not a fan of big chain hotels, but this one was a surprise, creating the illusion of intimacy with its attentive service.

Our room (a nightly rate of $159 plus tax and $18 for parking) was large, with a king bed, coffee table, armchair and hassock. Our window overlooked a new park, train and trolley tracks, and the enormous, white, tent-like canopy of the Convention Center.

We liked the convenient location, within walking distance of restaurants, shops and theaters in the tourist-packed neighborhood. But the spot might not be for everyone. The Gaslamp district, continuing its feverish gentrification, remains a construction zone of new condos and renovated lofts. Trolleys and trains produce their share of noise, although I found that soothing. Staying there was pleasantly disorienting, as if we had left Southern California car culture and were in some progressive, pedestrian-friendly city that had actually thought about urbanism.

A helpful hotel bellhop recommended nearby Asti Ristorante for dinner. It was a beautiful room filled with flowers and Italian murals, the ambience impaired only by tables packed so tightly that some diners, myself included, got bumped repeatedly by waiters and others walking by.

The menu was varied, with most entrees $16 to $29. We enjoyed our stuffed eggplant appetizer, followed by pasta with shrimp and other seafood for me, and pasta with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes for Leda.

Just a few blocks away was Horton Plaza, home to the San Diego Rep in the Lyceum Theatre, marked by a colorful obelisk atop a stairway.

From the smaller (270 seats) of the Lyceum's two halls, we soon were transported to the brooding Irish village of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," complete with rain onstage.

The four-character play by Martin McDonagh deserved its prizes, including four Tonys for its New York production (three for acting, one for directing) and a Tony nomination for best play in 1998. The play is about the brutal psychological and increasingly physical struggle between an evil and controlling mother and her 40-ish daughter trying to break free. Splendidly performed, it had the audience hissing at Mum.

"Beauty Queen" ended its run earlier this month. Due later this season are "The Mad Dancers," about Jewish mysticism and dance, and the musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."

For breakfast Sunday, we ordered room service: poached eggs over English muffins with spinach and tomatoes for me, a pastry for Leda, and fruit and coffee for both of us. The spread was delicious, but at about $26 (including tip), it was a luxury not worth repeating.

We explored the hotel, walking by the small pool on a second-floor terrace (too chilly to swim). A plaza had exhibits about the neighborhood's history-the saloons, brothels, steamships and immigrants. It was an interesting reminder of the past in a place where the present is changing so quickly to modern consumerism.

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