AFTERMATH OF CHALLENGER

Most people were moved by last year's Challenger disaster. For Jane Anderson, the only remedy was to write a play about the space shuttle explosion; the result is "Defying Gravity," opening Thursday at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

"I wanted to write something that explored the disappointment," said the playwright/actress, "then got over it--and back to the exploration of space. You know, it's man's natural impulse to leave his native land. And space is like the oceans were a thousand years ago, the new frontier. So it's our destiny to keep going. I think Christa McAuliffe knew that, and that's why she put her life on the line."

There is no direct reference to McAuliffe--only "the teacher." The other characters include her now-grown-up daughter (played by Anderson); "a couple of tourists, Ed and Edith, who've been traveling around in their Winnebago and want to see a launch; a member of the ground crew, and Claude Monet, the impressionist painter.

"There's a lot of magic and wonder," said Anderson (last seen at EST in her 1986 one-woman show, "How to Raise a Gifted Child"). "It's also about a love for flying and defying gravity. Everyone has fantasies about flying in space, and wonders what it'd be like to make love out there. Well, Ed and Edith get to find out. Also, I'll be doing some of my own flying on the gymnastic rings.

"These are very big, profound things that I'm trying to--excuse the pun--bring down to earth. And I want to show them with humor and humanity. I should emphasize that this is not a tragedy. The disaster is only half the play. The other half is getting over it. Everyone should walk out feeling uplifted and joyous--and with a keen desire to go into space. I believe in ending my things happily."

"I've been aching to do an Ayckbourn play for years," said Tom Henschel, who realizes his goal with the scheduled opening of Alan Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves" at Theatre 40.

"He writes these puzzles," added the director, who likens the work to a Feydeau farce. "In this one, there are two houses on the same stage, at the same time. Characters exist next to each other, but don't see each other. So it's insane: All these lives together in real stage time and space."

The story, he noted, "is that there's an affair--and of course, each spouse thinks it's the wrong person. There are two couples: One's a little older, more comfortable. The other (two) still have their college furniture--crates and cinder blocks. They're louder and fight more, hotter . A third couple comes to dinner at both houses on Thursday and Friday--which takes place at the same time. . . ."

All of which leaves Henschel little luxury for on-the-spot decision making. "I pre-plan everything," he said, "otherwise I waste the actors' time, my own time. So I put my ideas on paper and push them around a desk for a long time before we get into rehearsals. I have to close my eyes and see it, see the movie in my head."

Beginning Friday, the first Los Angeles Playwrights Festival kicks off the summer at the Skylight Theatre with seven one-acts, which will play in repertory, in three separate programs. The festival is a joint effort between Camelot Artists and the 7-year old L.A. Playwrights Group, headed by Joseph Scott Kierland.

The first program is "Three Acts of Sex in the Afternoon" (which includes Willard Manus' "The Love Boutique," Kierland's "The Tuning Fork" and Kitty Johnson's "Strawberry Envy"). "All deal with America's preoccupation with sex--and all happen in the afternoon," said Kierland. Apparently, it's a rather durable theme.

Jim Geoghan's "Precious Organs" and James Carroll Pickett's "Dream Man" make up "Westside Stories," which, Kierland notes, "also deal with a preoccupation with sex--but one takes place on the West Side of New York, the other one in Los Angeles."

As for the final entry, "Living and Dyeing" (comprised of Robert Harders' "Living" and Paul David White's "Dyeing"), "they have to do with old people, living more than dying, enduring--and yes, there's some sex too."

LATE CUES: Lali Roseba's "A Provincial Episode," about a troupe of actors playing the provinces in 1950s Soviet Georgia, opens this weekend at the Odyssey. Melanie Jones directs. . . . East West Players' annual American Classic Series concludes with Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" (opening Thursday) and Edward Albee's "Zoo Story" (opening July 2). . . . Also on Thursday, performance artist David Wheeler arrives at LACE with his satirical "12 Art Riots of the 20th Century."

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