Ex-ACT Director William Ball at Helm of 'Tom and Viv'; Ohio State to Honor Lawrence and Lee Playwrighting Team

Times Theater Writer

Michael Hastings' play about T. S. Eliot and his first wife, "Tom and Viv," will have its West Coast premiere Nov. 15 at the Odyssey Theatre.

But that's not the biggest news about the event. The biggest news is that directing "Tom and Viv" will be William Ball, the former and only recently departed artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre.

What is Ball, who founded the key San Francisco repertory company, doing in Equity Waiver?

He is declining to say, preferring to keep a low profile and let his producer, Odyssey artistic director Ron Sossi, answer the questions.

"We were interested in the play," Sossi said. "A few actors had this project in association with another director who had to give it up. One of them knew Bill (Ball) and asked him to read the play. He did and said he was interested."

The production with Walt Beaver, Scot Bishop, Cynthia David (Viv), Olive Dunbar, Beth Hogan and Mark Murphy (Tom) has been in rehearsal three weeks.

"Bill didn't want too much publicity. This does not represent any new turn in his career," Sossi said, reiterating that, in fact, Ball is in Los Angeles primarily to become involved in film and television. "He just liked the play, wanted to do it."

A summary plot line for "Tom and Viv" might be taken from an Edith Sitwell quote: "Tom went a little crazy, so he committed Viv."

"There was," Sossi explained, "some question as to whether Viv was truly mentally ill or just eccentric. Once he committed her, Eliot never saw her again. She was upper crust British, very impulsive.

"It's a strange love story about two people compatible in one sense--he was a bit of a mystic, as was she--and in other ways, quite incompatible, especially sexually."

John Francis is co-producing.

FIRST FRIDAY IN NOVEMBER: The enduring creative union of playwrights Lawrence and Lee--a phrase that is already part of the language--becomes writ in stone when Ohio State University formally dedicates the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute on campus Friday.

The institute, which caps a 45-year collaboration between the writers, is located in a building known as the Lincoln Tower, prompting the irrepressible Lee to quip: "Isn't it fine that Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee have finally gotten together?"

The playwrights, both born in Ohio, 28 miles apart (Lawrence in Cleveland, Lee in Elyria), never knew each other as children. Lawrence was a graduate of (and later a teacher of playwriting at) Ohio State. Lee went to Ohio Wesleyan because "they had the biggest telescope," he said. "But I got into different kinds of stars."

He and Lawrence met in New York in 1942. "People had told us about each other," Lawrence said. "The first day we met, Bob said, 'Let's have lunch.' We did, in the balcony of a Howard Johnson's. He took out a yellow legal pad and we started writing."

They haven't stopped since. Memorable collaborations for the stage include "Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'!"(1948), "Inherit the Wind" (1955), "Auntie Mame" (1956), "Only in America" (1959), "Mame" (1966), "Dear World" (1969), "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" (1971), "Jabberwock" (1972) and "First Monday in October" (1978).

"The marvelous thing about Ohio State," said Lee, "is it's crazy about football and just as interested in what goes on in the theater. I hope the institute can become a sort of bulletin board with the contributions of as many living theater artists as possible."

"(The institute) existed as a research center with no name," said Lawrence. "It has 450,000 frames of microfilm of costume design, theater design, productions, etc. And it has an incredible collection on Chautauqua."

Among the Lawrence and Lee memorabilia are a number of Al Hirschfield, Sam Norkin and Ronald Searle drawings of their own plays; framed holograph letters from George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, Sigmund Romberg and others--and 54 crates of first editions of plays, most of them inscribed by the playwrights.

Ironically, only copies of Lawrence and Lee manuscripts will be at the institute. The originals are already at the Performing Arts Library of Lincoln Center.

A 30th anniversary faculty production of "Auntie Mame" will mark Friday's occasion in the Thurber Theatre on campus--for whose opening its celebrated alumni had written "Jabberwock."

"We can't tell young people how to write," summarized Lee, "we can only light a fire underneath them. The institute gives young people a place to go find masterpieces. I hope it'll be as important as the football stadium next door."

"STRANGE" COAST-ING: Brian Kerwin, Jean Smart and Dirk Blocker will be featured in a production of Stephen Metcalf's powerful post-Vietnam play, "Strange Snow" at the Coast Playhouse Nov. 20-Dec. 28. Dan Polier directs.

Kerwin was memorable in this play when it was done at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre two years ago and the current staging is the culmination of several unsuccessful efforts to mount an equivalent production here.

PIECES AND BITS: Speaking of formal dedications, James M. Nederlander will have his star officially cemented into the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk of fame, smack dab in front of his Pantages Theatre Friday, 12:30 p.m. Now if he could only get a show cemented into the Pantages. . . .

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