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Absurdities in the Valley of Nuclear Death

Before Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods,” during the days of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” there was Arthur Kopit’s “End of the World With Symposium to Follow.”

Not exactly a night on the town, it nonetheless took a mocking swipe at the peculiar mind-set of those wonderful elves of science who helped bring us to the brink of nuclear apocalypse with their marvelous toys of destruction.

The wacky title was not only a clue to Kopit’s own darkly humorous mind-set, it was typical of the names of earlier plays that brought him notice.

The effort that put him on the map a quarter-century ago, for instance, was titled “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition.” Another was “Asylum: or, What the Gentlemen Are Up To, and as for the Ladies.” Still another: “The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis.”

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But this time theatergoers didn’t get it. Even as they bought tickets during the pre-Broadway tryout for “End of the World With Symposium to Follow,” they protested that they wouldn’t have time for any post-show discussion. A curtain is a curtain. Besides, they had to get up early in the morning for the commute to work.

The playwright, being more or less practical despite his chosen profession, acquiesced to entreaties not to confuse such a literal-minded audience and allowed the shortening of his title in the belief that the skimpier, less intriguing “End of the World” would do.

It really doesn’t, but be that as it may, the balmiest cold war ever has arrived with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and whatever the play’s title--anyone for “End of the World With Summit to Follow”?--Kopit said last week that he wouldn’t pen the same play today.

“If I were setting out to write about the nuclear issue now,” Kopit said from his Connecticut home, “I’d certainly do something different. But I don’t know what it would be. The political situation has changed, yet the underlying issue remains the same.”

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(So what does that do to the Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana, where “End of the World” opened this weekend (see accompanying review)? Probably less damage than ART’s elimination of a sardonic Russian Tea Room scene in which several top agents are trying to figure out how to make a doomsday script salable. (“When he says doomed, does he mean the West Coast too?”)).

Looking back at various productions since the 1984 original, the 51-year-old playwright maintains that “End of the World” has more to do with “the allure of the apocalypse” than with the patent absurdities of mutual nuclear deterrence.

Indeed, Kopit declines credit for coining the Orwellian euphemism “anticipatory retaliation,” which wafts like a Newspeak balloon from the mouth of a hard-line Pentagon strategist in the play. He is amused, moreover, that one New York critic cited the phrase as a mark of his satirical wit.

“There must be a bureau somewhere in Washington where they invent those phrases,” Kopit said. “It’s just another way of saying ‘pre-emptive strike.’ I wouldn’t have the guts to make that up.”

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In fact, he almost couldn’t write the play at all. He said a wealthy businessman approached him in 1980 with an outline for a play about a nuclear face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. The businessman offered a $30,000 commission to write the play.

“I went to interview all these experts in Washington,” Kopit recalled, “and I discovered something unexpected. I thought the people who worked on nuclear-weapons issues would be kind of despairing and scared, maybe heavy drinkers. But they weren’t that at all. They were excited.

“There was something sexy about the issues. Nuclear strategy was such a knotty problem, and they were chess players, sensible Rhodes scholar types who felt that the route to safety was more and more weapons.”

None of them wanted a nuclear exchange. But “at some level there was the desire to open Pandora’s box because the technology itself was so fascinating,” he said.

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By the time Kopit undertook his interviews, he knew enough about “deterrence theory” to point out that eventually one side has to call the other side’s bluff just to be sure its own bluff isn’t called.

“They all knew that,” the playwright said. “One strategist had this wonderful line. He said, ‘If you can think of a better mousetrap, let me know.’ I think he meant it.

“Mutual deterrence was good up to the point you got into trouble. It was like saying, ‘Drive carefully, but if you get into a skid, don’t ask us.’ They realized the paradoxes.”

But when Kopit tried to get his play down on paper, “it felt dead on the page,” he recalled. “I couldn’t find my way in. I couldn’t describe what had happened to me until I realized that I felt like a detective.”

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And so he created a detective story starring Michael Trent, hard-boiled dramatist, who wears a trench coat and has his own theme music. For all that, Kopit said, the play “shouldn’t be done as a sendup or a parody. The main thing is that it is a thriller.”

IT’S OFFICIAL: Grove Theatre Company has penciled in “Tomfoolery,” a revue by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray, as the final show of the current season at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove. Adapted from Tom Lehrer songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, it replaces the canceled “A . . . My Name Is Alice” and will run May 12 to June 17. South Coast Repertory did “Tomfoolery” a couple of years ago on its Second Stage.


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