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O.C. THEATER : ‘Ax’ Swings at ‘80s Greed : Rock ‘n’ rollers and entrepreneurs have more in common than meets the eye, playwright Anthony Clarvoe believes. ‘Pick Up Ax’ opens tonight at South Coast Repertory.

When Brian, Keith and Mick take the stage tonight at South Coast Repertory for the first preview performance of “Pick Up Ax,” they will not be that Brian, Keith and Mick.

But if theatergoers are spurred to think of the Rolling Stones, Anthony Clarvoe doesn’t mind. He says he wrote the play “with a real rock ‘n’ roll energy in mind” and named the characters as an inside joke about the central premise of the plot.

“Pick Up Ax,” which is to run through Oct. 21 on the SCR Second Stage, unfolds in Silicon Valley during the boom times of the early ‘80s. It revolves around a pair of whiz-bang computer kids (Keith and Brian) whose small but successful company has become a buyout target for corporate sharks.

Enter Mick to save them. He is a hungry young shark himself, armed for battle with cunning tactics he believes to be far more persuasive than his MBA.

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“The structure of the play is a takeover that invades an earlier partnership,” Clarvoe said. “That happens in a lot of different contexts, and I was reminded of the fact that the Rolling Stones started out as Brian’s band and became Mick’s band. So I just thought it would be an amusing in-reference.

“What’s funny,” he added, “is that when I wrote the play in the summer of 1988, the Stones had not been very visible for a while, comparatively speaking. Then in the following summer they had their immense tour. Before that, nobody got the reference. After that, everybody got it. I meant it to be a little more subtle than it turned out to be.”

The names have a deeper significance, however. They are an emblem of a macho world of self-made millionaires still in their 20s, whose swaggering taste, brassy posturing and brainy calculations epitomize the rebellious spirit of nonconformist entrepreneurs. Besting the establishment, they also test their limits of morality, friendship and greed.

Nor does the in-joke end there. The very title of Clarvoe’s black comedy calls to mind a commonly used metaphor for musical instruments: In rock ‘n’ roll parlance, instruments are axes. And Clarvoe’s embattled characters fight their software skirmishes as well as their corporate wars like heavy-metal rockers brandishing sonic weapons.

“I listened to heavy metal, which is not my usual listening, the whole time I was writing this play,” the 30-year-old San Francisco native said last week from Minneapolis, where he recently took up residence for a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights Center. “It’s the kind of music these characters would listen to. I wanted to make sure the play would stand up to that level of kinetic energy.”

This is not the first time “Pick Up Ax” will be at SCR. It was given its first public reading there in October, 1989. But SCR was not prepared to give the play a production until now, so the world premiere took place in January at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, where it won local accolades. More recently, the American Theatre Critics Assn. chose it for publica tion in the Burns-Mantle Best Plays of 1989-90.

All the allusions to rock notwithstanding, the title of “Pick Up Ax” literally refers to one of the options in a computer game of the ‘70s called “Adventure,” which obsesses Keith particularly when he is confronted by a seemingly insurmountable programming dilemma.

“Adventure” begins with the instruction: You are standing near a small stone cottage in a forest clearing. Suddenly a dwarf carrying a stone ax runs out of the woods. He drops the stone ax, opens the cottage door, runs through and slams the door. At that point the player is asked what he will do.

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“The game is what’s called ‘an interactive narrative’ ” Clarvoe explained. “How’s that for a lovely phrase? Any time a significant object appears, you should see whether you need it for later. The response that turns out to be correct is: Pick up ax and go through the door , which I liked as an image to take action.”

Although he has no experience with computers beyond typing on them and being able to operate a spread sheet, Clarvoe has had indirect contact with the ethos of the computer industry through classmates from Princeton University who migrated to Silicon Valley and “did extremely well.”

“One of them, a very smart guy clearly destined for management, always said he didn’t need an MBA because he had played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in college,” Clarvoe recalled. “So he knew all about strategy and tactics. That line certainly informs the play.”

On the other hand, Clarvoe does have corporate experience. After his graduation from Princeton in 1981, he “gave the straight world a try,” he said, and put in three years in the insurance industry and three years in arts management. By the time he called it quits in 1988 to become a full-time playwright, he had worked his way up to chief administrator of San Francisco’s Pocket Opera Company.

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“I thought that would bring me closer to art, but it only brought me closer to business. It was so time consuming that I actually had less chance to write than when I was in the insurance world, where I could leave my work at the office.”

While Clarvoe has written plays since high school, the only other full-length effort he admits to is “The Reappearing Act,” which he describes as “a lyrical magic-realist kind of thing” about an insurance salesman and his wife, whose dreams foretell the future. “The tag line,” he said, “was dreams, magic, fast talk and life insurance.”

He has also written two one-acts produced in workshops: “D.N.R.,” which takes its title from the medical acronym for “do not resuscitate” and is a black comedy about euthanasia, and “A Hot Time,” which is set on a summer afternoon in Chicago and deals with love and the redemptive power of the blues. And three weeks ago, he completed a play on commission for SCR tentatively entitled “Show and Tell,” about the aftermath of a classroom explosion.

In the meantime, two other productions of “Pick Up Ax” have been scheduled--at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in December and upstate at San Jose Repertory in February. Only the other day he got a call from a theater in Dallas that wants to mount it.

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“The acceptance has been gratifying,” Clarvoe noted. “But every once in a while I still get the script back in the mail saying, ‘Dear playwright, Thank you very much.’ It reminds me that ‘Pick Up Ax’ is not to all tastes.”

“Pick Up Ax” runs through Oct. 21 on the SCR Second Stage, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 and 8 p.m. at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $29. Information: (714) 957-4033.


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