"I wanted to do something set in New Orleans because I love the banana and palm trees," offered playwright John Lewter, whose "Welcome Signs" premieres Friday at the Flight Theatre (in the Richmond Shepard Theatre Complex).

Lewter had begun work on the script in the summer of 1975, when it was commissioned by Joanne Woodward for the River Arts Repertory writers workshop in Woodstock, N.Y. "I had the vaguest idea of a man having a heart attack in a boarding house," he recalled. "But once I arrived and started working with Joanne, everyone there was so young and robust; no one looked old enough to have a heart attack. So there were a lot of changes. Every night I hit the typewriter, every day the actors worked it out."

Before long, the middled-aged male protagonist had become a woman, "a band director forced into retirement, who's kidnaped her only student and brought her to New Orleans to audition for music school at Tulane. The play is called 'Welcome Signs' because that's what you're left with--signs. If it went on for another hour, we might see them begin to realize their dreams. As it is, you're left with a lot of maybes: Maybe Queenie will get into the school, maybe the teacher will go to Europe. . . . "Usually in plays, one character takes over; that's the one you fall in love with," he added. "But I wanted the challenge of making all (seven) characters equal. Some may be more interesting to other people, but to me they're all the same."

Susan Tyrrell and Susan Barnes headline John Guare's "Landscape of the Body," opening Friday at the Court Theatre.

"It's about all the bad things that can happen to a person," explained director Richard Arrington. "The central character, Betty (played by Barnes), arrives in New York from Bangor, Maine, and her sister (Tyrrell) dies. Everyone dies--in bizarre ways: The son is decapitated, the boss is shot in a supposed bank robbery. . . . "

This is a comedy? "Sure. People will leave feeling entertained and happy--it's very funny and fast-paced. As the audience, we understand why everything's happening but the central character never does. In that way it's a lot like life: Terrible things happen--you don't understand why--but you get through on personal strength and a sense of humor."

LATE CUES: The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum embarks on its fifth season with repertory productions of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (opening tonight), Tennessee Williams' "The Two-Character Play" and the world premiere of Ellen Geer and Peter Alsop's "Pie in the Sky." Additionally, the Theatricum's summer program will offer a five-week Youth Drama Camp, an Intensive Shakespeare Seminar, a Musical Concert Series and Americana Festival.

On Tuesday, Charles Pierce returns to the Studio One Backlot with tributes to Bette, Mae and Marilyn. . . . "Angels Flight," a collaboration between Pipeline and the Museum of Contemporary Art, begins an eight-week performance series July 9 at MOCA. The program will include specially commissioned pieces by Jan Munroe, Kedric Robin Wolfe, Peter Bergman, Paul Krassner, Harry Shearer, John Fleck, Tina Preston and Tim Robbins and the Actors Gang.

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: A revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," starring Mickey Rooney, recently arrived at the Pantages.

In this paper, Dan Sullivan found the show quite eclipsed by Rooney's antics: "He mugs, he chortles. He wanders off during 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' to blow kisses at the audience. He throws in jokes about Musso & Frank's. . . . Rooney aside, this is a witty and well-prepared revival."

In the Herald-Examiner, Michael Lassell was tamer: "Shakespeare this ain't. We don't need elocution, elegance and grace here. What we need is funny. What we get is sort of funny sometimes, kind of funny once in a while, almost funny, approximately funny, something like funny, nearly funny, approaching funny, in the neighborhood of funny. But no funny."

Said Jay Reiner in the Hollywood Reporter: "The show appears tired for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that its zany brand of low-brow burlesque humor wasn't all that funny to begin with. . . . As for Rooney, he seems tired too. Playing the role of Pseudolus, Rooney half-heartedly runs through his 'Sugar Babies' bag of tricks. The assortment of mugs, shrugs, leers and ad-libs he musters is straight out of yesteryear, only he had more energy then."

And from Kathy O'Steen in Daily Variety: "It's meant to be burlesque, and Mickey Rooney gives it his best shot to make it so, but overall 'Forum' is mostly hit-and-miss, offering up an inconsistent evening intermittently punched up with laughs." O'Steen did praise "slick production values" and the performances of several supporting players, yet concluded that "without Rooney at the helm to bring in the crowds, this show would very likely die a quick death."

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