THE DREAM FACTORY : Tonight's Opening of Playhouse Gives Theater Club a Home at Last

The San Fernando Valley may appear to need another small theater about as much as it does another Thai restaurant. But the folks at the Richard Basehart Playhouse think it needs one more.

"We discovered that, of all the countless people who go downtown for a show, many of them are from the Valley," said Diana Basehart, widow of the classically trained character actor perhaps best known to audiences for his role as the admiral in the 1960s' TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea."

The playhouse is dedicated in honor of Basehart, who died of a stroke in 1984. It opens its doors tonight with a sold-out, $50-a-ticket revival of "Little Mary Sunshine," Rick Besoyan's 1959 melodrama musical directed by Cynthia Baer Wynant, playhouse president and artistic director who steered the original off-Broadway production starring Eileen Brennan.

Brennan will attend tonight's black-tie affair, along with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is scheduled to preside over the theater's inauguration ceremonies.

The independently financed playhouse, across from Warner Center at Ventura Boulevard and Variel Street in Woodland Hills, represents the culmination of a dream shared by Basehart with his best friends, Wynant and her actor-husband, H. M. Wynant, the playhouse's executive vice president and managing director.

'Flourish Creatively'

"Richard always wanted a place on the West Coast for actors and directors to meet and flourish creatively and produce a wide variety of productions encompassing the classics as well as new works," said H. M. Wynant.

Originally a small club of working actors given to play readings in Basehart's home, the group staged its first full-fledged production, "Don Juan in Hell," starring Basehart, in Hollywood in 1984. Since then, the Richard Basehart Theater Club has had its headquarters variously at the Jockey Club in Marina del Rey, the West End Playhouse in Van Nuys and Hollywood's Chamber Theater, where it staged a series of one-act Chekhov farces as part of the recent Fringe Festival.

"The playhouse is our third house, but it's our first real home," said Cynthia Wynant.

At first, she remembers feeling "it was like going out of town" at the Woodland Hills location. But the West Valley was selected because it was felt that competition in North Hollywood and Van Nuys, where most of the Valley's two dozen or so Equity-waiver theaters are situated, would be too great.

Formerly a machine shop, the playhouse took its present shape in a scant 2 1/2 months--a feat that all involved are quick to credit to the round-the-clock efforts of H. M. Wynant. Diana Basehart said the place was "a hideous warehouse," with an inch-deep layer of grease on what would become the auditorium floor.

Posh Lobby

Wynant oversaw transformation of the 4,000-square-foot space, which now boasts a huge stage, a state-of-the-art lighting system and a posh lobby that doubles as an art gallery. The gallery is managed by Diana Basehart, a sculptor, and features paintings by Cornish artist Fred Yates.

There were rough spots, however. Obtaining the required permits was difficult, construction of wheelchair access ramps led to a $35,000 cost overrun, and Wynant concedes to having made "unfortunate oversights" in the overall design. "If you sit in the seventh row, you're in trouble," he said jokingly.

Seats were still being installed as late as Thursday night to make ready for tonight's premiere.

From the beginning, the playhouse was conceived as something beyond a mere play factory. "Richard harbored the idea of a place for actors not only to work, but be together, network," said H. M. Wynant. "Unlike New York or in regional theater, there's no social center here."

The problem became particularly acute when, unable to find proper theatrical training for their daughters locally, the Wynants and Baseharts shipped them back East to earn their acting laurels. "Young people out here rarely get a chance to work with professionals," he said. "And you'll never learn to play tennis unless you play with somebody better than you are."

Associates Program

The playhouse has set up an associates program that allows less-seasoned performers to work with their more experienced peers. "As soon as the dust settles, we also want to get involved with schools," said Cynthia Wynant, a former drama teacher.

What distinguishes the Basehart group from similar actors' centers throughout the Los Angeles area is the professionalism of its members. All 80 full-time members are "professional" actors--people with an established body of work who make their living acting. Angie Dickinson, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Jones, Mel Torme, Lee Meriwether and director Don Taylor are among the charter members.

Although the "professional" designation is necessarily restricted to more mature talent, the Wynants do not exclude younger performers. "Little Mary Sunshine," for instance, stars up-and-coming Marnie Mosiman, so memorable for her work in the critically acclaimed "Cloud 9" a few seasons ago.

With 91 seats, the playhouse is opening as an Equity-waiver space. (Actors who perform in a theater with fewer than 100 seats waive the fees established by the Actors' Equity Assn.)

But, Wynant conceded: "I dislike the concept of waiver theater altogether because it sometimes exploits the actors so badly." He said the playhouse will expand to about 175 seats within two weeks.

Dance Company Sought

Although the selection of a proven crowd pleaser like "Little Mary Sunshine" represents an astute commercial decision, playhouse offerings will be wide-ranging and not always limited to theater. The Wynants are seeking a resident dance company to share the space and hope eventually to be able to have a weekly evening of chamber music.

A second, radically different production has been slated--Rick Najera's "The Godman," a newly written drama of conscience and betrayal in war-torn Central America starring Henry Darrow and Leslie Charleson. But there are no thoughts yet of anything like a season. And with good reason.

"We don't want our arrogance to be bigger than our reality," said Cynthia Wynant. "We'll allow ourselves to grow, but only when we're ready."

"Little Mary Sunshine" plays at the Richard Basehart Playhouse, 21028-B Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills, every weekend through Feb. 26. Curtain at 8:30 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15, $12.50 matinees, $2.50 discount for seniors and students. Information: (818) 704-1845.

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