<i> Times Theater Critic </i>

Officially the new Los Angeles Theatre Center doesn’t open until tonight, with the Grand Opening coming Friday, followed by dancing in the streets. But the center has been offering shakedown previews for the last week, so it has been possible to get a sense of the place in action. The first impression is very good.

There are problems. No outdoor cafe; a dauntingly steep rake to the audience area in Theatres 2 and 3; a sense of being divorced from the flow of performance in the balcony of Theatre 1, although it’s physically not that far from the stage; other awkwardnesses as well.

But in general the new Theatre Center works, starting with the neighborhood. Yes, it’s perfectly safe to go “down there” at night. In fact, we walked over from the paper (at 2nd and Spring) on Tuesday to see “Nanawatai.” Another night, we drove in from the Westside, using the well-lit parking lot (free) just south of the theater. Spring Street after dark isn’t a combat zone; it’s just a little forlorn. A new theater will socialize it.

Four new theaters, actually; but Theatre Center’s big lobby works as a kind of mother ship to link them. The lobby is too marble-spartan now. It needs the promised art gallery, bookstore, bar. (The old Masquers Club bar would have been just the thing, but the Variety Arts Theatre was there first.)

Yet the lobby isn’t a cold space. It invites strolling and forgathering. One can imagine lobby concerts, too, as at the National Theatre of Great Britain.


There’s also the suggestion of a great carpeted railway station. This way to Chekhov; turn right for Sam Shepard; around to the back for Mabou Mines; down the stairs to “Nanawatai.” The ushers even walk around announcing when the next act is starting in each theater, which is much more fun than an automatic bell system. When the amenities are in, this will be the most distinctive theater lobby in Los Angeles--next to the Pantages, of course.

A back-of-the-house tour suggests that the center’s actors will be well-bestowed (nothing fancy, though--no star dressing rooms) and that its technology will be state-of-the-art. Too bad there wasn’t room for a scene shop, but as no in-house scene shop ever turns out to be big enough, it’s just as well that the space was given to rehearsal halls. (LATC will build sets in a rented space in Alhambra.)

The dressing rooms and green room did seem a little plain-pipe, but that’s the atmosphere in the four auditoriums as well. The walls tend to be concrete and there’s no attempt to hide the vents and ducts. The effect isn’t brutal, but it is a bit bunker-like, and some viewers will never warm up to it.

None of the four playing spaces can be fully analyzed until a variety of shows and concerts have been presented there. At first glance, the only problem with Theatres 2 and 3 are those sharply raked aisles, which ought to be railed. At the same time, the angle pitches actors and audience against each other more aggressively than in a laid-back house, which added to the considerable electricity generated by “Nanawatai” Tuesday.

Theatre 4--the small black-box theater--seems too simple to have any problems. At a guess, the tricky house will be Theatre 1, a corner-stage affair that suggests a cut-down version of the National’s Olivier Theatre. The volume over the stage is very large and from the balcony one tends to see the tops of the actor’s heads rather than their eyes--the effect, anyway, when I sampled “Three Sisters” at the first preview. Tonight’s opening will be the real test.

So much, for now, for the house. How was “Nanawatai”? It was a surprise. New plays in new theaters tend to be disasters. This one has force, theatricality, political relevance and enough brains to get by. Tuesday night’s audience didn’t have to force itself to like it.

William Mastrosimone places his story in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, but the scene could equally be South Vietnam in the 1960s. The conflict is between the “civilized” conqueror, the man of iron, and the “uncivilized” rebel, the man of blood. Philip Baker Hall is the conqueror, a Soviet tank commander so far gone in cruelty that he actually seems to take satisfaction in setting his men (Tommy Swerdlow, Adam Arkin, Bill Pullman) against one another.

The rebels are Afghan tribal warriors who also make a way of life out of fighting one another, but who have temporarily struck a truce in order to hound the infidel Soviets out of their homeland. The men (Steven Bauer, Stefan Gierasch, Rene Assa) are fierce. The women (led by Gina Gershon) are even fiercer.

“Nanawatai” isn’t a character, but a cry for mercy that a good Afghan warrior must honor, at least if one of his countrymen utters it. When he hears it from a devil intruder, his duty is less clear. In this play the men are disposed to honor the cry, while the women worship the bloody code of badal (revenge). As in Mastrosimone’s “Extremities,” it’s clear which sex he considers the more lethal.

The cry of “Nanawatai” also has a certain magic about it, and this is a play that believes in magic, i.e., in the power of the mind to make the world either an evil place or a good place, to be ruled either with hate or with mercy. One of the biggest strengths of Lamont Johnson’s staging is that the viewer tends to fall into the mind-set of these “superstitious” warriors--to see the wisdom, for instance, in leaving it all to Allah after a certain point. A surefire way to clear the mind for the right decision.

Mastrosimone has written his play in much the same headlong spirit, trusting Allah. The dialogue is full of purple patches, sometimes to a ludicrous degree. Lots of

into-little-pieces-and-throw-me-to-the-sharks-if-I-do-not-speak-the-truth” passages. The image of a Soviet tank-driver (Pullman) joining the Afghans in search of a “better war” seems ultra-romantic. The Afghan warriors’ camaraderie sometimes approaches that of “The Desert Song.”

Yet the play doesn’t invite scoffing at. Who’s to say that the Afghan warrior and his women wouldn’t be inclined to a rococo and self-dramatizing manner of speech? In a country where Allah is taken very seriously indeed, who’s to say that miracles and sudden conversions don’t happen all the time? If at its worst “Nanawatai” suggests pulp fiction, at its best it has some of the ritual power of Greek tragedy--another reason it plays so well in this amphitheater-like space.

The acting is strong and simple, with no sense of modern irony infecting the words. The actors believe the fable, and we believe it at least to the extent of knowing we’ve had a full-blooded evening of theater. Also impressive is the design--sets, costumes and lights all credited to Timian Alsaker, aided by Russell Pyle. The first entrance of the tank is particularly spectacular. It’s good to know that the new Theatre Center doesn’t consider itself above effects like that. It is off to a highly practical start.

‘NANAWATAI’ William Mastrosimone’s play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Lamont Johnson. Producer Diane White. Sets, costumes and lights by Timian Alsaker. Music/collages Fredric Myrow. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Lighting co-design and special effects Russell Pyle. Production stage manager Donald David Hill. With Gina Gershon, Philip Baker Hall, Tommy Swerdlow, Adam Arkin, Gerald Papasian, Bill Pullman, Edwin Gerard, Steven Bauer, Stefan Gierasch, Mark Petrakis, Rene Assa, Ariana Delawari, Setara Begum, Rahila Delawari, Soraya Delawari, Yasmine Delawari, Roya Fahmy, Khorshied Machalle Nusratty, Zarmina Popal. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2. Closes Oct. 20. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-6500.