Times Theater Writer

Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," a landmark play by a master playwright, in a production that features Jason Robards and was the fall Broadway season's crown jewel, will light up the Doolittle Theatre Feb. 12 through March 9. Director is Jose Quintero, an unparallelled specialist in O'Neill. The new year was already looking good. Now, it's looking terrific.

This four-hour American National Theater production, acclaimed last summer when it opened at Washington's Kennedy Center and acclaimed again when it moved to New York's Lunt-Fontanne, will be resurrected in the Southland with all but three members of its original cast (Caroline Aaron, Paul Austin and Leonardo Cimino). Everyone else will be there--which includes Robards, Donald Moffatt and Barnard Hughes. It will play on Ben Edwards' original set.

Responsible for arranging all this is Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper, in charge of programming for the Theatre Group Inc., the joint UCLA/Center Theatre Group venture that runs the Doolittle. Making it economically possible are the UCLA Center for the Arts (formerly UCLA's Committee on Fine Arts Productions) and UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, who came up with the necessary underwriting.

"We had begun talking even before the show opened in Washington," Davidson explained after the announcement Tuesday. "I just felt it was a potentially good idea--good for the community.

"It's been a passion for me with Jose (Quintero, now a Los Angeles resident) and Jason (Robards). It also goes back to a conversation I had with Jason two years ago when he was doing 'You Can't Take It With You.' He told me there were two theaters he really liked to play in this country. One was the Hartford (renamed the Doolittle); the other was the Eisenhower."

What makes the "Iceman's" coming to Los Angeles such a surprise is that, despite its rapturous reviews, it closed prematurely in New York on Thanksgiving weekend. The show wasn't selling tickets--a concern Davidson hasn't allowed to deter him. How did he keep the company from disbanding for better than two months?

"Largely thanks to the actors' willingness not to take on other work until we could see if we could put it together," he said. "I just kept after them. It was a matter of juggling, finding out how long the show would play in New York.

"We also had a lot of cooperation from the Kennedy Center. We were able to store the set. One of the reasons UCLA was interested is because I suggested to them that this could be part of a two-year investigation of O'Neill's work, both through our auspices and on campus--a project involving a look at the O'Neill canon and culminating in something important in the centennial year (1988)."

That connection is what finally persuaded Chancellor Young. "We agreed it was important," he said, "and since Center Theatre Group couldn't come in with the underwriting, we did."

This significant arrival continues what has so far been an eclectic and distinguished first year for the Theatre Group Inc. on North Vine Street--from its kickoff with "The Garden of Earthly Delights," through the two Stratford (Ont.) Shakespeares ("Twelfth Night" and "King Lear") and the current "Gospel at Colonnus."

Nor has this fact escaped Young. "I think we've done an amazing job in launching this initial season with all its uncertainties," he said. "Iceman" will rehearse in town for a week and begin previews Feb. 7.

THE DICKENS, YOU SAY: When you reach 80, endurance is something to celebrate. Actor/playwright Emlyn Williams has just the way to do it--by touring with his "Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens" again. The enduring one-man portrait returns Friday to the Westwood Playhouse, where it had played in 1982.

"I started in 1951," Williams said, a careful, cultured voice over the line from Florida (where he was playing Dickens), "but, of course, not every night since then. That's 34 years," he added, with a tone of mild surprise mixed with satisfaction. "I stop and go back to it, so I always come back to it fresh. I haven't done it in two months."

Williams claims it all started by accident, when he was asked to "do something" for a benefit at Drury Lane. "I said, 'I've never been alone on stage.' I started to back out, but I'd been reading a biography of Charles Dickens, who himself had been very dramatic. I first came on as Dickens as a sort of--well, a stunt, really."

Williams, the prolific author of several plays (among them, "Night Must Fall," "The Corn Is Green") and screenplays ("The Citadel," "Hatter's Castle," the unforgettable "Woman of Dolwyn," written for the late Dame Edith Evans and directed by him), is benefiting from another modern phenomenon: Charles Dickens is in .

We have "Bleak House" running on PBS. The Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby" is being revived. A Guthrie Theatre "Great Expectations" has toured the country. Even a musical of "David Copperfield" had a brief, if not successful life.

"As with all great writers, his writing is topical," Williams said. "I do two pieces about snobbery, which applies the world over. Snobs have always existed. I do something from 'Pickwick Papers' about medical students and cutting people up. A student asked me how (Dickens) knew so much about his profession.

"Dickens had the theater in his blood. Had become an actor at 17, but veered into journalism. One doesn't know if he would have become as great an actor as Sir Henry Irving, but his descriptions are extraordinary."

And in later life Dickens had returned to "performing" by doing more or less what Williams does: reading scenes from his books. Does Williams vary his program from one time to the next?

"It's all set--has been for several years. I've deliberately stayed away from the hackneyed pieces. But I've found some marvelous ones such as 'Bedtime Story for a Good Child,' embedded in a collection he wrote for a magazine."

Not one to stand still, Williams/Dickens will be off to San Francisco at the conclusion of his nine-day run in Westwood. And there is even the possibility that he may give Los Angeles a glimpse of his other one-man show, "Dylan Thomas Growing Up," at the currently dark Hollywood Playhouse on Las Palmas. Said he:

"It's a good way, I think, to celebrate my 80th birthday which was in November. I come from a long line of sturdy Welsh peasants and I happen to be very healthy."

TAMARA THE WORLD?: The enterprising producers of that multilevel, many-mansioned melodrama-a-clef have found yet another way to entice their audiences.

They're celebrating the 750th performance of "Tamara" with a contest wherein the first-prize winner gets a round trip to Milano for two, five nights and six days at the Hilton International, an excursion to the real Il Vittoriale (the Gabriele D'Annunzio villa which is the setting of the play) and a fistful of lire to handle other expenses.

There are second and third prizes and visitors to "Tamara" from now through March 15 (when a drawing will be held) are all eligible--after they answer a few questions. Nothing dangerous. All in fun. The number to call is still (213) 851-3771.

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