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Playwright Mednick’s Work Returns to a Mainstream Setting

<i> Colker is a Times staff writer</i>

Almost everyone deeply involved in the local theater scene knows playwright Murray Mednick, but few have ever seen one of his plays actually performed on a stage.

Mednick is best-known as artistic director of the annual Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival that over the years has fostered emerging talents such as David Henry Hwang, John Steppling, Jon Robin Baitz and Marlane Meyer. Several plays by Mednick have been presented at the annual, monthlong festival he founded 14 years ago with Sam Shepard, but those were usually done outdoors on minimal sets.

It has been almost a decade since one of his works played a more traditional venue in Los Angeles.

That streak will end Sunday with the opening of his play “Shatter n’ Wade” at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue. The short play, which made its debut at the festival last summer, will be paired with “Catullus,” a two-character curtain-raiser he wrote for this run. Both will be directed by Mednick.

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“I guess that in Los Angeles my plays are sometimes not considered commercial,” said Mednick, whose best-known works are from his “Coyote” cycle, adapted from American Indian legends. That seven-play cycle, steeped in ritual, is not the stuff of more linear, mainstream theater. When it was performed in its entirety, it was in all-night performances at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura in 1985.

Mednick is not, however, above taking on more mainstream challenges. “I wrote a ‘Head of the Class’ about two years ago,” said Mednick, 51, referring to the long-running sitcom. “It got on, but I don’t think a word I wrote ended up in it.

“It was an astonishing experience.”

“Shatter n’ Wade,” a drama concerned with political and personal conflicts, is more Mednick’s ilk. The lead character, named Sayer, is the leader of a community meeting called to discuss such topics as the effects on children of the electromagnetic fields generated by high-powered transformers.

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“Essentially, the play is about ecology,” Mednick said. “But it’s also about speaking on a lot of different levels: speaking out, oratory, rhetoric, listening.”

Mednick gives the audience only glimpses of the meeting. The play, which runs just over an hour, takes place outside the door of the meeting hall--the debate and speeches inside are heard when a character opens the door to enter or exit.

Against the backdrop of this community controversy, Sayer struggles with issues concerning his children, the title characters.

“I was attracted to it because it seemed to me to be about all the confusing segments of daily life,” said Diantha Lebenzon, a lawyer and fund-raiser who is on the Padua Festival board. She saw “Shatter n’ Wade” at the festival last summer on the Cal State Northridge campus (the festival has played several different venues over the years) and decided that she wanted to produce it at a theater. Because it was a bit short to stand on its own, Mednick wrote “Catullus” to take place on the same set.

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That play, which is lighter in tone than “Shatter n’ Wade,” is about a young man trying to get his feelings across to his date by reading to her from the writings of Catullus, a Roman poet who lived in the 1st Century B.C.

Lebenzon, who had never before worked in theater, joined forces with Wayne Long, who has produced almost 20 plays in Los Angeles and other cities. They booked the plays into the Matrix, which at 99 seats is classified an Equity Waiver theater, which gets a break from standard union rates. But the cost of producing the plays is nonetheless considerable.

Long said the budget is about $75,000, with about 16% of that going to salaries for the 13-member cast.

Without name actors in the cast, the chance of the investors getting their money back or earning a profit depends heavily on the play’s reviews and word of mouth. And even if the production is a big success, there is little chance, Long believes, that it could be moved to a larger theater, where greater profits could be realized.

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“This is essentially a one-act, and they are very difficult to put into a bigger arena,” Long said. “But I think we can make it in the waiver theater. The writing is terrific, and I think people will respond to that.

“If any one has a chance, I think this has.”


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