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Actor Finds Artistic Home in S.D.

For as long as he can remember, Jon Matthews has been searching for an artistic home.

His hunt led the Brooklyn-born actor to Manhattan casting calls and his first Broadway play, “Runaways” when he was just 16. It was a mind-blowing and career-creating opportunity for the Horace Mann High School senior, but Broadway--as it turned out--wasn’t quite what he wanted.

As a result of “Runaways,” he was offered movie and television roles in Hollywood, but they weren’t quite what he wanted, either. He shut his ears to the agents and managers and producers who flew him out to Los Angeles and told him he would be a fool not to follow up on the momentum of “Runaways.” Instead he went to Harvard to find an artistic community.

But even Harvard wasn’t quite what he wanted.

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Now 26, he lives and acts in Hollywood, right under the Hollywood Hills sign, and commutes to the city that has become the spiritual escape he had been looking for over the past decade: San Diego.

Matthews is about to star in “Loot,” his third role at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in less than a year.

“The theater that they’re trying to create at the San Diego Rep is a theater I would love to be a part of,” said Matthews over breakfast at Pepper’s, a restaurant near the theater.

“They make a lot of mistakes, but their heart and their spirit is in the right place. Any theater that looks forward to doing a Mac Wellman piece (last season’s ‘Albanian Softshoe’) and ‘Slingshot’ knowing that their core audiences will be intimidated and angry deserves to be supported.”

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Matthews’ first starring role at the Rep was “Slingshot,” the theater’s contribution to the Soviet Arts Festival.

It came about indirectly because of the Rep’s production of “Red Noses.”

Matthews didn’t see “Red Noses,” but he read the rave review about it in The Times and decided he wanted to work at the Rep.

“I thought I would like to be part of a company that did work like that. I told my agents to watch out for anything that happened at the Rep. When ‘The Marriage of Bette and Boo’ came along, we couldn’t make that work. But then they called me for ‘Slingshot.’ ”

Sam Woodhouse, the producing director and Douglas Jacobs, the artistic director of the theater, were so pleased with Matthew’s work as the sexually confused Soviet adolescent, that they called him back for back-to-back productions of “Burn This” and “Loot,” which opens tonight at the Lyceum Stage.

In “Loot,” a farce by Joe Orton, Matthews plays Hal, a thieving scamp who uses his mother’s corpse to hide some loot he has stolen from the bank.

Though “Loot” is nearly a quarter of a century old, Matthews expects it to seem outrageous to its audiences--and that’s one of the things he likes about it.

“We get this corpse into compromising positions. The heroes are murderers and thieves. There are bisexual characters on stage, and it makes fun of religion.”

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It’s not shock for shock’s sake that appeals to him, however.

It is shock for the sake of changing the ways people in the audience think of themselves, he said.

It’s a concept that has been with him ever since he did “Runaways,” the Elizabeth Swados musical about runaway teen-agers.

In “Runaways,” which was produced by Joseph Papp, he said he was told the show was dealing with issues that are not usually discussed and was meant to be angry and confrontational.

“We were told that, if people didn’t walk out, we were doing something wrong,” he said. “Remembering that helped me with ‘Slingshot.’ ”

“Runaways” also affected Matthews’ own mother who, after seeing the show, learned about parts of her past that she had blocked.

“It changed her life,” Matthews said quietly. “It is the paradigm that all my other work is measured against.”

Stunning an audience is an effect that he finds more achievable in San Diego than in New York, where the people are more jaded, or in Los Angeles, where he said people tend to look at plays as audition platforms.

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“In Los Angeles, even when you get standing ovations, the audience wasn’t there to see the play, they were there to scout talent.”

In “Slingshot,” in contrast, he describes the curtain call reverentially.

“It was like seeing the headlamps on a stunned animal. It had the incredibly high soul value of putting the audience in touch with their feelings. It was a gift.”

It is just coincidence that the three roles he has played in San Diego have been sexually confused, gay or sexually ambivalent characters, he said. The one stipulation he had on the parts he played this year was to break away from the adolescent parts he had played since “Runaways.”

These are actually the first non-straight parts this straight actor has had.

He likes the parts and the fact that he is being cast in adult roles, not only here but in Tony Kushner’s “Millennium Approaches” at the Taper Too in Los Angeles.

He has other ambitions as well: On the Mondays he has off from “Loot,” Matthews will be exploring yet another role--he will direct three one-act plays by Margo Kessler for a new theater group he founded in Los Angeles called Acme Theatrics. The show, “Hormonal Disturbances,” will star film actors DeDee Pfeiffer and Keanu Reeves.

Matthews’ previous roles include a milk-spewing geek in “Heathers,” roles in “China Beach,” “L.A. Law,” John Guare’s “Landscape of the Body” Off-Broadway, and “Romance Language” at Playwrights Horizons in New York and at the Mark Taper Forum.

Still, because of his roles at the San Diego Rep, the slight-looking actor joked that he may insist on a macho role next time he comes to San Diego.

“If I come back, I guess I’ll need to play Stanley Kowalski.”

But what he really wants is a challenge, preferably a controversial one. He wants a role that tests his limits rather than allows him to repeat a performance he has already given, he said.

“The wonderful thing about being in a community where they see you do a lot of different parts is that they can be amazed by the different people one person can be.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we realize we have endless possibilities within ourselves. What’s great about acting, if you do it right, is that you constantly expand who you are.

“If the audience believes in that character I construct, then I hope they will understand that they can do the same, that they can be other people. When they see me constantly change my life, then maybe they can see that they can change their lives.”


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