'Brain Death,' Set to Close, Makes Miraculous Recovery

The San Diego institution known as "Six Women with Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know" was supposed to close Sunday after 520 performances. Really. But the San Diego Repertory Theatre can be terribly fickle about closing dates when a sudden surge of interest in ticket-buying occurs, and so, there will be one more week of the longest-running show in San Diego history, bringing the grand total of performances to 526.

Unless yet another run on the box office materializes next week, the set with the giant white teeth and protruding tongue will be retired to the prop heap along with "Six Women's" Barbie and Ken dolls. And somewhere, somehow, the more intangible memories will have to be stored for the cast and their faithful band of repeat customers, who sometimes laugh before the punch lines because they know them so well.

It's been a long road for the little show inspired by tabloids the six actresses were reading in between shows, seeing headlines such as "Eat All Day, Lose Weight" as symptomatic of the confusing and illogical messages we receive on how our lives ought to be lived.

The show's wild popularity was not expected, but that's often a common characteristic of long-running shows.

The longevity of "The Mousetrap," the thriller that has kept London audiences on the edge of their seats since 1952, came as a surprise to its since-deceased author, Agatha Christie. She thought it would have "a nice little run," said her grandson, Matthew Pritchard, to whom she assigned the royalties as a gift. The show has since earned millions.

"Shear Madness," an audience-participation mystery set in a hair-style shop, broke the box-office record held by "Life With Father" in 1987 after eight years in Boston.

"I wish we could say we perceived . . . this," said its co-writer, co-producer, co-star Marilyn Abrams. "It wasn't some grand plan."

"The Mystery of Irma Vep," the Charles Ludlam show that opened the 1987 season at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, was supposed to be the ever-extending hit, according to Rep insiders. But "Irma Vep" opened and closed without fanfare while the little heralded "Six Women With Brain Death" opened in October, 1987 and went on to the Sixth Avenue Playhouse in June of 1988.

Another element that long-running hits have in common is a common touch. Like two other record breakers, "A Chorus Line" on Broadway and "The Fantastiks" Off Broadway, "Six Women" is not the sort of play critics sit around and analyze. The characters are ordinary. They long for love, excitement, adventure and peace of mind, and they laugh at the contradictory nature of their various quests.

Thus, the longest-running show in San Diego history bids adieu after playing to more than 100,000 patrons, including Joe Vecchio, who has seen the show 17 times since he took his mother last February.

"My mother kept elbowing me in the ribs because I was laughing so loudly, so I moved down a couple of seats," Vecchio recalled. "I laughed so hard I missed half the dialogue. I had to come back."

Vecchio's favorite scene--"Severed Head Lives Seven Days"-- is also the favorite scene of Sal Giametta, cultural aide to Mayor Maureen O'Connor. Giametta has seen the show six times, thrice on official business to deliver congratulatory proclamations from the Mayor. The other times, he said, he took out-of-town guests to see it because he knew they'd have fun.

Vecchio is as sad as anyone about the imminent closing of "Six Women." But he takes heart that, for those, like himself, who are willing to go the distance for the women they love, "Six Women" may still be within reach. Nan O'Byrne, the producer who opened and closed a short-lived "Six Women" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center this year, will again try the L.A. market for the show at The Backlot Cabaret, a 200-seat cabaret house in West Hollywood.

Sharon Murray of the original San Diego cast will be in it, as will one of the original eight authors, the full-figured Rosanna Coppedge, who is still asking, "What do they mean by One Size Fits All?" at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse. The show opens with an AIDS benefit Aug. 4 and will preview Fridays and Saturdays through August, opening in early September. The soap opera addict scene will be cut to allow for two performances a night. The "Poodles from Hell" number, which replaced "Hello Nancy" a while back, will stay. And Vecchio is looking forward to seeing the show at least one more time here before he visits it in L.A.

PROGRAM NOTES: San Diego Playgoers is bringing back "Oba Oba" in addition to "Cats," but it had to do some contortions with scheduling to accommodate the demands on the San Diego Civic Theatre. Instead of the usual Tuesday-Sunday matinee runs, "Oba Oba," will play Wednesday-Sunday (Aug. 9-13), and "Cats," Monday-Saturday (Sept. 11-16). The previously announced dates of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" have been changed to Aug. 23-27 (Wednesday-Sunday) with an extra evening performance on Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. . . . The latest brochure for the San Diego Arts Festival proclaims the San Diego Repertory Theatre has chosen a play for the festival. Actually, according to the Rep, the choice, "Smirnova's Birthday Party" by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, is just "the odds-on favorite." They don't intend to make final a choice until the director, Roman Viktyuk, comes to town in the first week of August. . . . Things are looking good for the Bowery Theatre's continued partnership with the Kingston Playhouse. Lee Julien, one of the partners of the Kingston Hotel which is lending the Bowery the Playhouse space, joined the Bowery's Board of Directors Tuesday night. The Bowery, in turn, just announced its first advance season schedule ever that will run through March at the Playhouse: "What the Butler Saw," by Joe Orton, a to-be-announced Christmas show and Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Teibele and Her Demon." . . . David McFadzean, executive story editor for "Roseanne," put his new play for the Lamb's Players Theatre on hold to pursue a television project with the Disney. Lamb's will substitute "The Diary of Anne Frank" for McFadzean's "Once in a Blue Moon" Aug. 18-Sept. 17. Lamb's will also present Tom Key (creator of "Cotton Patch Gospel") in "Screwtape," based on C. S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" Aug. 3-5 and "Revelation," a dramatic rendition of the Book of Revelations, Aug. 6. . . . The Big Kitchen Dinner Theatre will scale down its menu and serve dessert only when the Eisler Project unveils Edward Albee's one-act play, "Counting the Ways" July 27-30 and Aug. 3-7. Eric Grischkat, who starred in the Golden Hill restaurant's last venture, "Conversations in Exile," will return in this story about a married couple with the seven-year itch.

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