British Plays to Be Made in U.S.A. for Festival; 'Checkmates' Returning to Westwood Feb. 3

Times Theater Writer

It is more than a little ironic that, now that the National Theatre is definitely not showing up, the only British theater we'll see as part of the UK/LA Festival this spring won't be made in England at all. It'll be made in America.

To compensate for the loss of the National, American productions of British plays have been set, including "Made in Bangkok" by Anthony Minghella at the Mark Taper Forum, Steven Berkoff's "Acapulco" at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and David Cale's one-man show at Taper, Too. What is also included (a bit curiously) is a play by an American woman with an imposing name who lives in London and happens to be playwright-in-residence at London's Royal Court.

As announced in Watch late last year, Timberlake Wertenbaker's "The Grace of Mary Traverse" will be produced by L.A. Theatre Works this spring. Still to be set are a director, cast and opening date.

As described by artistic director Susan Albert Loewenberg, the play dwells on a challenging subject: the pursuit of knowledge and its moral consequences, "the attempt to retain a sense of grace in the face of a number of appalling acts (Mary Traverse) has to commit in response to acquired knowledge."

"She has an unquenchable, indiscriminate thirst for knowledge. What we see in the end is an attempt to incorporate both the exhilaration and the ugliness that knowledge brings, and to somehow resolve and integrate the sum of her experience. The play is remarkable for its use of language and its willingness to deal with the grand theme. It's very picaresque."

L.A. Theatre Works received a $20,000 grant from the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays (designed to encourage American play writing and to enable theaters to stage them) toward mounting this play.

In addition, L.A. Classic Theatre Works (another branch of L.A. Theatre Works) is set to do two radio plays (to be announced) jointly sponsored by BBC radio and KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica for the UK/LA Festival.

It's pleasant to have turned the tables, for once, and have American companies help get this big British show on the road.

SECOND TIME AROUND: When something has worked pretty well once, why not try it again?

That seems to be the philosophy behind the return of "Checkmates," Ron Milner's domestic comedy, which revisits the Westwood Playhouse (where it played last summer) Feb. 3 through March 6.

"When we closed here in September, we had already made a deal with the theater for the end of January," said director Woodie King Jr., who'll be restaging. "Paul (Winfield) and Denzel (Washington) had to leave the show at that time but we knew Paul would be available at this time."

Nor has "Checkmates" stood still since then. It played the Academy Theatre in Atlanta and the Waterfront Theatre in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, in each case with local casts.

The same will more or less happen at the Westwood where, except for Winfield, everyone else will be new: Richard Lawson (dynamite as Levee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center last summer), Vanessa Williams (yes, the same Vanessa Williams who lost her Miss America title because of a Playboy spread) and Marla Gibbs. A new set will be built, but the play otherwise remains much the same.

"It's been reduced by about 20 minutes," King said. "Each actor brings to it his own special flavor. Richard's entirely different from Denzel; Vanessa's different from Rhetta Greene and Marla (who replaces Gloria Edwards), well, Marla's in a world all her own."

After Westwood, "Checkmates" moves on to Washington's Arena Stage with yet another cast headed by Ruby Dee. Meanwhile, the Feb. 3 opening in Westwood will be a benefit for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

SECOND TIME REDUX: "Mail," another second-time-arounder which closes at the Pasadena Playhouse Jan. 30, is now firm for a Feb. 17 opening at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Negotiations for a mid-April opening in New York continue hot and heavy. . . .

Locally, the fourth slot of the Playhouse's 1988 season (July 28 through Sept. 11) has just been filled with "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well" in rotating rep with "Harry Chapin: Lies and Legends."

Amanda McBroom and George Ball are toplined. Sam Weisman, who developed the Chapin show in 1977 at the Improv (when it was called simply "Chapin") and who's been with it in Chicago and New York since, again directs.

The other Playhouse shows are Stephen Poliakoff's "Breaking the Silence," John Bunzel's "Death of a Buick," "Born Yesterday," and Warwick Moss' "Down an Alley Filled With Cats."

PLUS CA CHANGE: Think theater tickets are going through the roof? Tired of paying $30, $40, $60? Our faithful correspondent and inveterate theatergoer, Bernard Siegel, came across a letter he wrote many moons ago to the now-extinct Mirror News. It reads in part:

"For years we've been hearing the same old cry, that the legitimate theater is gradually pricing itself out of business. A good example is 'Separate Tables' at the Huntington Hartford (now the James A. Doolittle Theatre). On weekends, orchestra and loge seats are priced at $6 for non-Theater Guild subscribers.

"As the years go by the price of theater tickets keeps gradually rising and the quality of plays keeps deteriorating. Outside of an occasional 'Hatful of Rain,' 'Anastasia' or 'Diary of Anne Frank,' we get to see a lot of nothing. . . ."

Sound familiar? Publication date of this letter: Jan. 10, 1958.

Thirty grouchy but undeterred years later, the die-hard Siegel is still going to the theater, but admits it's getting tougher. "Besides the Taper, Ahmanson and CLO," he writes, "we now subscribe to the L.A. Theatre Center. I know darn well that if we didn't subscribe we'd never go to the box-office and pay those 'atrocious prices.' "

Wanna bet?

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