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THE LINGERING SHADOW OF THE GROUP THEATRE

The Group Theatre, if not the greatest American theater ensemble/collective of the 20th Century (and who’s to argue this?), has certainly been the most seminal. Its heyday was in the late ‘30s, and now, 50 years later, two works open in Southern California this week that owe their lives to the Group’s existence.

The first is “Johnny Johnson,” opening today at the Odyssey Theatre. Written by Paul Green, it played Broadway in 1936 and was the first work by Kurt Weill after he came to America.

“It was one of the great early productions of the Group,” said Odyssey Artistic Director Ron Sossi, who directs here. “It had Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and John Garfield. It’s probably the size of the cast--32 characters--that’s been one of the reasons the play isn’t done more often; I call it a play rather than a musical since the music isn’t its chief expression. I think another reason you don’t see it is that it recalls an earlier America full of naivete and idealism and romance. I always compare it to ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’

“It’s a cross between ‘Sergeant York’ and ‘Candide.’ A young man in a small town is adamantly opposed to war, but believes in Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations and the idea that the First World War will be the war to end all wars. He goes to the front, believing Germans are just as human as we are. He’s wounded, hospitalized. People regard him as crazy. There’s even a scene in a mental home where he organizes his own League of Nations. By the end, he’s lost everything, an old man selling his toys of hope.

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“This is a piece that varies stylistically from realism to the Marx Brothers to Gilbert & Sullivan. I think it has a great deal to say about America and war. The final piece of the puzzle went into place when I found Ralph Bruneau to play the lead. He was in the Broadway production of ‘Doonesbury,’ and I think he captures that combination of James Stewart and Henry Fonda I’ve been looking for.”

Clifford Odets was the playwright who most embodied the Group’s struggles and tastes. When he left New York for Hollywood, a number of the artists who stayed back felt betrayed (some because they knew what a defection would mean to the delicate chemical composition of an artistic ensemble, others out of plain envy and spite--and it could be argued that the Group never did recover from his leaving; it continued, but on the broken bone of a leg that hadn’t been properly set).

Despite his work in the movies, Odets was principally a man of the theater, and that’s what director Jeffrey Hayden wants to remind us of when “The Country Girl,” starring Eva Marie Saint, opens at the Santa Barbara Theatre Group Thursday.

If “The Country Girl” had nothing to do with the theater, it would still be a fascinating study--in view of the politics of domestic life in the ‘80s--of how married people need and protect and use each other. Hayden, who has been married to Saint for many years, prefers to think of it as a view of life in the theater.

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“It’s one of the best backstage theater stories ever written,” Hayden said. “Odets has the sense of the texture of life in the theater and everyone in it, the producer, the stage manager, the writer. To me, it’s so much richer than David Mamet’s ‘A Life in the Theater’ because it deals first with a marriage, a marriage that’s lasted a long time. That’s a very hard thing to capture. It’s a play within a play within a play, and Phillip Abbott as the husband finds a delicious level of the actor’s life that’s full of humor.”

Hayden has directed Saint a number of times, mostly on the East Coast (they did “Summer and Smoke” together at the Huntington Hartford in 1973). He has numerous important credits in stage and television. She has gained that rare achievement where, when you think of her, you can’t think of anyone quite like her. Why don’t they work in Los Angeles more?

“It’s still an industry town,” Hayden said, in a regretful tone of voice. “But it’s getting better. I think the Henry Fonda theater and the new Hartford (now the James A. Doolittle) are very good for Los Angeles. This new theater in Santa Barbara (the Garvin at Santa Barbara City College) has it all. It’s everything you’d ever want in a theater. I thought it’d be a wonderful thing to put a major production in here.”

Other openings for the week include: Monday, George Sibbald’s “Brothers” at the Gnu Theatre, “Famous People Players” at Smothers Theatre in Pepperdine/Malibu; Thursday, “Violence--The (mis)Adventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer” at the Wallenboyd and “The Old Woman Broods” at the Off-Main Street in Santa Monica; Friday, “Botticelli” and “Suddenly Last Summer” at Theatricum Botanicum.

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