Play About Chernobyl Will Receive U.S. Premiere at LATC; McKellen to Bring Revised Shakespeare Show to Westwood

Times Theater Writer

"Sarcophagus," the play about the Chernobyl disaster that opens tonight in London in a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, will receive its American premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in September as part of the Los Angeles Festival. Acquisition of American rights to this play is considered a bit of a coup for LATC. ("Sarcophagus" is now playing in Vienna and opens April 26 in Stockholm.)

Artistic/producing director Bill Bushnell will stage the drama written by Pravda science correspondent Vladimir Gubaryev and whimsically described by a local wag as "Chernobyl Meets the Shadow Box." Stay tuned . . .

BACK TO BASICS: Ian McKellen makes no secret of his disappointment that "Wild Honey" closed early on Broadway ("it was expensive and audiences didn't come in large enough numbers"). He also wasn't ready to pack it in. So the resourceful British actor brushed up his "Acting Shakespeare" and took it on the road.

In February, McKellen did four weeks of this versatile one-man show at San Francisco's Marines Memorial Auditorium (where he'll return next month), three weeks at the National in Washington, D.C., and Wednesday he comes to spend a month with us at the Westwood Playhouse. Again.

McKellen's last visit here with "Acting Shakespeare" was in 1983 and it was memorable.

"I've added something," he said over the phone Tuesday. "Now I give members of the audience a chance to join me up on stage."

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Robert Marx, newly appointed director of the Theatre Program for the National Endowment for the Arts, was in town Friday to hold an informal get-acquainted seminar with local theater practitioners at the California Theatre Council.

The 36-year-old Marx acknowledged that the NEA's theater program is at a financial low with only $10.5 million to distribute among the 178 companies currently on the program's roster (down from 275).

"It's a difficult amount to work with," he conceded. "With 70% of it in company grants, there's not much left to work with. We try to be responsive to work that has national impact . . . The main point is for us in Washington not to be distant and to listen to you. The key at the moment is to forge relationships among the various funding organizations--at the national, state and local levels and with private foundations," Marx said, pointing out that 20% of the NEA's theater budget goes immediately, by law, to the state arts councils and underscoring that it is crucial to evaluate how "the amount of time that has to go into fund-raising affects the work on stage."

Susan Loewenberg of L.A. Theatre Works suggested: "A great service the endowment could perform would be to help us educate local funding sources."

Marx, who acknowledged that attending the Olympic Arts Festival here in 1984 "changed my life," said he believed the funding potential in this region was "enormous" and that he was "convinced" there was a way to arouse its interest.

Along these lines, it's worth noting that a report in the March 14 issue of The Economist concluded that every country's method of paying for the arts is bad, but some much worse than others. France gets the highest marks, America the lowest.

American government funding for the arts in 1984, the report said, was $3 per capita (much less now)--one-third of English allotments and a tenth of French ones.

"SUN"-STROKE: The engaging production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," now at the Wilshire Theatre through April 26, is not doing as well as it should.

Despite affectionate reviews and the powerful presence of Esther Rolle in the leading role, it grossed $84,916 last week (second week of the run), up from $68,378 the previous (opening) week. If that sounds encouraging, consider that a sellout at the 1,546-seat house would rack up $347,655.

"I'm a little mystified," producer Robert Nemiroff said Tuesday about the low figures. "The show is getting the same standing ovations that it got opening night. But sales in the middle of the week are sagging. At the Kennedy Center, this production broke records."

For the week ending Nov. 30, 'Raisin' took in $212,779 in Washington. Compare that with the week of May 17, 1984, when 'Death of a Salesman' with Dustin Hoffman hit a high of $207,267--or July 21, 1984, when 'Jerry's Girls' with Carol Channing peaked at $202,197.

"The word of mouth is tremendous," Nemiroff added. "We do fine on weekends, but what's keeping people away during the week?"

It could be the 3 1/2-hour running time. Yet this "Raisin" offers a rare chance to see an important black play well done--worth fighting off that alarm clock for in the morning.

FRIENDLY FOES--FOR NOW: The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) had an informational picket line in front of the Pasadena Playhouse during the recent round of pre-season performances, and, said Robert Trombetta of Local 33, the picketing will resume when "The House of Blue Leaves" opens May 3.

What was striking about the protest, however, was its tone. Call it polite. A flier distributed by picketers encouraged ticket-holders to attend the performance. All they asked for was a phone call or letter to the theater's management "to register (a) protest."

Playhouse management countered with a flier of its own, equally temperate. It stated the reasons for its position (economic), but underscored its respect for the protesters' right to picket.

Why such uncommon courtesy?

"We won't settle this thing any sooner by swearing and shouting," said IATSE's Trombetta. "Confrontations should be a last resort."

The Playhouse's Don Loze said they were "comfortable with the (non-union stage crew) we have" and emphasized that IATSE's decision to picket had come in the middle of talks with the union and was "unilateral. We haven't had any discussions with them since they put the people out there."

When might they resume?

"I really don't know."

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