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Gordon’s ‘Normal’ Takes the Long Way Home

It took a long time and lot of mileage for Orange County playwright Don Gordon to get a production in his own back yard. With the opening of “Normal Doesn’t Mean Perfect” at Illusion’s New View Theatre in Fullerton over the weekend, you might say he finally has arrived.

In one form or another, his two-act comedy about the disintegration of an unhappy marriage and the birth of a crazy love affair in Anaheim Hills has traveled from coast to coast with little or no fanfare, acquiring a small bandwagon of supporters along the way.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 06, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 6, 1989 Orange County Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 11 Column 1 National Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in Tuesday’s Calendar about the schedule for Laguna Playhouse’s upcoming season referred to the wrong year. The schedule was for the 1989-90 season.

Gordon began writing “Normal” nearly a decade ago in a workshop at Theatre West in Los Angeles. It received a staged reading in San Diego at the Old Globe and was picked for further development by the Denver Center Theatre from 1,800 unproduced scripts in a nationwide competition in 1985.

From there it went to Ashland, Ore., where it ran for 6 weeks in a full-scale production at the New Playwrights Theatre, also in 1985. Then it made its way to New York, where it was staged in a workshop at the American Theatre of Actors (ATA) in 1986. And a community theater produced it in Canton, Ohio, 2 years ago.

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Gordon, who has lived in Irvine for 10 years, says he would love to have seen the play developed locally. He says he tried to interest South Coast Repertory, the county’s biggest and richest company, but found no takers. He tried Grove Theatre Company, the county’s other major company, with the same result. (The Grove has produced only one original play--by Ray Bradbury--in its 10-year history.)

“I don’t want to sound negative,” says Gordon, 53, a former Hollywood actor who earns his living as a chinaware salesman. “But there’s such an enormous gap here. At the top you have South Coast, which is huge and successful and has jillions of dollars in grants. Then you free fall from there to community theater with almost nothing in between. There really is very little interest in developing local playwrights.”

Recent stirrings on the Orange County theater scene hold some hope of improvement, but not much. It will take more than the Grove’s self-prescribed overhaul in June or the Alternative Repertory Theatre’s 2-year-old effort in Santa Ana to spawn local theatrical fauna.

SCR’s first annual California Play Festival, for instance, is focused beyond the county. The Laguna Playhouse is preparing a May premiere of “Manet,” an original musical by its own Mark Turnbull, but the local agenda of the professional troupe that the Laguna expects to launch in November remains to be seen. The Backstage Theatre Company, which plans to do local plays in Irvine, has yet to open its doors.

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Illusion’s New View, by itself, will have mounted more productions from local playwrights this season (its second) than any of those theaters. In January it did “Read My Lips” by Fullerton’s Lew Riley. After “Normal” it will stage “Beyond the Orange Sky” by Tustin’s Larry McCauley.

Meanwhile, Gordon hopes that “Normal” will go over well enough at the box office to justify Illusion’s commitment. Illusion’s co-producer Jeffrey Ault is under no illusion that his box-office phone will be ringing off the hook, but he is optimistic. If it does well, he says, he will transfer it to a theater in Los Angeles rather than close it.

Gordon’s script “is very well written,” Ault adds. “It’s bizarre, and that’s what attracted me.” He says the play is about “a typical Orange County love affair--boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl tries to kill boy, wife tries to kill them both.”

“It’s a dark comedy about violence,” says Gordon. “It’s nothing that will solve the social ills of the world or correct man’s deplorable behavior. But it has a serious subtext.” (Gordon vows that the plot couldn’t be further from his own marital life. “I’m married to an angel,” he says. “I dream this stuff up. That’s why I’m a playwright.”)

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ATA artistic director James Jennings says he chose to give “Normal” a workshop production at his New York theater because of Gordon’s “talent for developing unusual situations and strong character relationships.”

The result was so well-received, he says, that it was extended and moved from the theater’s experimental space to its off-Broadway house. “The play had a lot going for it,” Jennings notes. “That’s why we wanted to see it up. It had problems, too, but I think he’s a promising playwright.”

That promise is about to get another boost from Sal Romeo, artistic director of the Friends and Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, who will give Gordon’s latest full-length comedy about incest, “Diversionary Tactics,” a workshop reading later this season.

“A lot of us who started the theater 2 1/2 years ago come from Orange County,” says Romeo, who taught drama at Orange Coast College and Fullerton College. “If we get a good script from there we feel an obligation to do something with it. Don is good. He deserves to hear his work.”

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Gordon is, naturally, pleased at the spurt of interest, and he plans to develop some experimental pieces at Illusion’s New View in association with another fledgling amateur group, the mightily named Orange County Coalition of Theatre Artists.

But Gordon doesn’t really believe that there will be much of a theatrical flowering in the county unless “Equity waiver” is allowed, as in Los Angeles. (Waiver entitles members of Actors Equity to work at small theaters without a union contract for low pay.)

Without that, Gordon maintains, productions rarely will rise above the mediocre level of most community theater in terms of both casting and dramatic material.

George Ives, who heads the union’s western regional office in Los Angeles, has his doubts that waiver is the answer. “The question really is whether theater can develop anyway (in Orange County),” he says. “I’m wary of the idea that there’s no way to do it unless you can’t pay the actors. The only reason waiver exists here was to allow it as a showcase to get film and TV work. That reason disappears once you get out of Los Angeles.”

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“Normal Doesn’t Mean Perfect” continues at Illusion’s New View Theatre, 3030 Brea Blvd., Fullerton, weekends through May 23. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $7 to $10. Information: (714) 990-9605.


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