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Perspective

Craftsmen of the Stage

Unlike giants of the theater, these playwrights deserve praise simply for working year in and year out.

June 02, 2002|STEVEN OXMAN

There are annual plants and perennial plants. Annual plants blossom beautifully ... once. Then they need to be replaced. Perennial plants might not bloom as spectacularly, but they return season after season.

As it is with botany, so it can be with playwrights.

The perfect playwriting example of the annual variety is Margaret Edson, who wrote the stunning "Wit," took home the Pulitzer Prize, and decided that she would write another play only when she felt it was in her, when there was something she was driven to write. Until then, she happily returned to teaching kindergarten in Atlanta.

Then there are the stalwarts, the playwrights who, against all odds, keep delivering plays over the course of decades, but because of their ubiquity can often be taken for granted. It's time to stop and smell the roses of a few representatives of this variety, who've been around an awfully long time, have gone in and out of fashion, and, if one cares to notice, have been populating the local theater scene of late: Horton Foote, A.R. Gurney Jr. and Terrence McNally.

Let's call them the perennial American playwrights.

International perennials--the Athol Fugards, the David Hares--are plentiful; domestic ones rarer. It's not really hard to understand, given the big-time temptations (or, depending on one's point of view, opportunities) that face playwrights who achieve fame in America.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 200 words Type of Material: Correction
Play location--"The Young Man From Atlanta" was most recently produced here last year at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, not at the El Portal, as the June 2 Perspective in Sunday Calendar said. Also, it should have noted that Arthur Miller has written a new play, "Resurrection Blues," which will premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in August.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 09, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 142 words Type of Material: Correction
Play location--"The Young Man From Atlanta" was most recently produced here last year at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, not at the El Portal, as the June 2 Perspective said. Also, it should have noted that Arthur Miller has written a new play, "Resurrection Blues," which will premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in August.

Arguably, America's two leading playwrights of the '70s and '80s are busy now primarily with other endeavors. Sam Shepard, the off-Broadway artiste, has become a film actor, appearing frequently in TV movies, turning out a short play every five years or so--if we're lucky. David Mamet has become a Hollywood auteur writer-director and screenplay surgeon. He most recently wrote and directed the films "State and Main" and "The Heist." Before his play "Boston Marriage," which premiered in Cambridge, Mass., in 1999, his last stage work was ... could it have been "The Cryptogram," a one-act from way back in 1994?

Now, I'm an admirer of both writers, and they can hardly be blamed for being drawn to forms with larger audiences, or in Shepard's case, less wearing occupations. But they serve to demonstrate how rare the perennial really is.

The writers who've never stopped regularly, almost rhythmically, writing plays, even if--especially if--they never achieved quite the same degree of fame as Mamet or other perennials like Neil Simon, August Wilson or Edward Albee, deserve serious credit. For not being distracted more than momentarily by film and television. For not even being distracted by a need to direct their own plays. For being playwrights in a culture that treats the profession most often as a steppingstone to something else. For defining their careers--and their lives--by the fact that they write plays.

That's what they do--that's who they are. That's why they define the perennial playwright in the U.S.

Foote, Gurney and McNally have all been around a long time, but they're hardly household names. They're the playwriting equivalent of the character actor one sees in the supermarket--they seem familiar, but what did they write?

So one might be surprised that each has been produced at least twice at prominent institutions in Southern California in the last year. "Pete" Gurney's "Far East" was just staged at Laguna Playhouse, and his "Ancestral Voices" was recorded by L.A. Theatre Works about 18 months after it was performed by a name cast at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

McNally has been represented by his librettos for "The Full Monty" at the Ahmanson and for the opera version of "Dead Man Walking" in Orange County.

Foote's recently staged work in Southern California includes the South Coast Repertory world premiere run of "Getting Frankie Married--and Afterwards," as well as a revival at El Portal of his 1995 Pulitzer-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta."

Taken together, these three writers have composed well over 100 plays--if you count their early, short plays, probably more than 150. They've had hits ... and misses. They didn't arrive at theatrical prominence from Day One, but came to be known after writing many plays.

Gurney wrote his first full-length, "Scenes From American Life," in 1970, but assured a career with "The Dining Room" in 1982, which ran off-Broadway for a year and a half. (In the middle of that time, his 1977 play "The Middle Ages" received its premiere at the Taper Lab.) McNally had been writing plays for more than 20 years before "Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune" in 1987 made him a known quantity.

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