A FRIEND IN DIRECTOR'S CHAIR

If one were reduced to a single-word description of Craig Lucas' "Blue Window" (extended through Oct. 27 at the South Coast Repertory), the word would have to be elegant. Not elegant in the fancy social sense, but more like a mathematical equation where an intricate series of unlikelihoods congeals into a formal, surprising and gratifying beauty in front of your eyes.

The unlikelihoods in this case consist of seven men and women in their 30s who get together one Sunday night to have a party. We meet them before, while they're getting ready; during, while they're together, and after, when they go home again, affected in some way by what has happened in the course of the night, just the way most of us are affected by people and things, often without directly realizing it.

"Blue Window" is not distinguished by histrionic True Confessions as the evening wears on. In fact, the evening is characterized by an absence of histrionics. Case in point: Griever, an aspiring actor, has more than a passing interest in Libby, the party's hostess. In fact, they're friends, sort of. After the party, he telephones her to say good night and have a midnight chat. But Norbert, who has stayed on, picks up the phone. Griever hears the man's voice and hangs up. No gnashing of teeth, no "takes." He just puts the phone down and stares straight ahead in forlorn silence.

"Blue Window" is about people alone together and alone in themselves--inner loneliness is such an atmospheric generality here that it's never confronted, though no one is a loser or a sad sack--and it's fairly safe to say the play would be a muddle without a clear, subtle and discerning directorial eye that sees the shadows under these characters' hopeful eyes. Director Norman Rene has that talent, and as is often the case with productions that successfully depend on tone, he knows the playwright well.

Rene, 34, is artistic director of the Production Company, an Off-Broadway theater in New York. He staged an earlier Lucas play, "Reckless" (which was also done at South Coast Repertory), and together they co-conceived "Marry Me a Little, Songs by Stephen Sondheim."

"Craig and I first met through a mutual friend who asked me to read an earlier play Craig was working on, called 'Missing Persons,' " Rene said. "I liked his writing right away. It has a strong voice and a particular point of view. I told him that if he finished it, I'd do it. After 'Marry Me,' I did.

"In 'Blue Window' we were interested in telling a story through behavior instead of a narrative or dramatic line. We cast it before he started writing ("Blue Window" first played at the Production Company and then the Long Wharf, and three actors from the original are in the SCR cast).

"Craig's idea was to do a play where the audience came to it, instead of the play going after the audience. He wanted you to start out knowing some people and not others--in the play itself you hear people talking about whether it's possible to really know someone else and is there really such a thing as common experience."

Of his background, Rene reported: "I was born in Rhode Island. When I was high-school age I went to boarding school, where they made me join drama because I was . . . withdrawn." He chuckled. He's still soft-spoken, and not easy to draw out. "I went into directing instead of acting because I was always interested in the whole rather than the part. I was interested in how you could do things visually on stage, how you could evoke feeling by where you put people on stage."

Rene went on to Carnegie Mellon, and credits Lawrence Carra, a teacher there, as a further influence in his developing "the tools a director can use in terms of space and movement, looking at the stage as a picture, and how you can use structure and music to influence people."

Then it was New York, and after a brief, unsatisfying attempt at acting, he directed Mark Medoff's "The Wager" at a place called the Night House. When that theater's lease was up, he took it over as an experimental space. Rene likes the idea of getting together with people in a room--actors, writers, musicians, designers--and seeing what comes out of it. But he does step outside. Some of his other work includes "Two Small Bodies" with Judith Ivey (which he brought here to the Matrix two years ago), "Busby Music" and "Alec Wilder: Clues to a Life."

Last year he won an Obie for continuing artistic achievement; he's about to open Kevin Wade's "Cruise Control"; in March he will open George Furth's "Precious Sons" on Broadway, with Judith Ivey and Ed Harris, and he's at work on yet another collaboration with Lucas, and Craig Carnelia, who wrote the music for "Working."

The conflicts in "Blue Window's" people were played down, according to Rene, because Lucas and Co. observed that people really don't like to engage in confrontations. You recognized them, the writer, the family counselor, the rock composer, the secretary, and you wondered if they felt themselves part of a larger social context, or if their friendships were accidental.

"I don't know how they feel about a social context," Rene reflected. "A lot of people in their mid-to-late 30s were political in the '60s and are now trying to find self-fulfillment as opposed to social fulfillment. They're questioning how they fit into a universe instead of a society."

One of the challenges of playing "Blue Window" was that Lucas has a naked ear for hearing just the way we tend to talk around things--in fragments, or in false starts--or the way things come out differently than we intend, and how, therefore, we tend to be at a bit of a loss, however skillfully we cover up.

"And getting actors to do that is not an easy thing to do," Rene said. "I wanted them to watch people and listen to how they are and how they do things. The idea for the play was a museum with seven portraits of people doing different tasks. It was part of showing how people prefer not to deal. It's hard to get actors to be always there, playing the minute they're in instead of the beginning or the end. It's hard to get them to trust themselves."

Maybe that's why the play works so well. It's hard for "Blue Window's" people to trust themselves too.

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