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Playwright Is Happy to Adapt to New Role at SCR

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paranoia, the feeling that kicks off the madness in “The Russian Teacher” by Soviet playwright Alexander Buravsky, is a key ingredient in many works by American playwright Keith Reddin.

That’s one reason the play’s dramaturge at South Coast Repertory, Jerry Patch, immediately thought of Reddin as a perfect choice to adapt Buravsky’s black comedy for American audiences.

Reddin’s adaptation of the work, which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, will be the 34-year-old playwright’s first adaptation for SCR, but his fourth premiere there.

The others were “Life and Limb” (1984) about the Korean War, “Rum and Coke” (1985) about the Cuban Missile Crisis and “Highest Standard of Living” (1986), about a Soviet/American couple trying to survive paranoia in both countries. It was this last story’s attention to the similarities amid the differences in the United States and Soviet Union that made the fit seem appropriate to Patch.

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“The Russian Teacher,” which made its debut in Moscow in 1990 and just finished a U.S. tour by the Oleg Tabakov Moscow Theatre Studio in Russian, deals with Anatoly, a Russian teacher so nervous about keeping up with whom the government considers a literary traitor and a literary hero that he escapes to a seaside resort for a vacation.

But the resort has its own problems. With no rooms available, the teacher rents a place in a hospital from a doctor who has extra beds. But when the doctor fears that inspectors are coming and that they may punish him for putting healthy people in the hospital, he tries to cover up by making the healthy people pretend they’re sick. At first, he won’t allow them to go out, then he puts casts on them and, in a last, desperate move, he tries to break their bones so that their conditions will match those reflected on their charts.

The tourists’ fears lead them to keep accommodating the doctor, even as his actions escalate in craziness.

While “Highest Standard of Living” may have been Reddin’s only other time to set scenes in Russia--he studied Russian there for three months as a foreign-exchange student--one could call the fear of fear a recurring theme in his work.

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“I don’t want to give myself up to paranoia and insecurity and see the world as a scary place,” said Reddin during rehearsals for “Life During Wartime,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1990.

“Life During Wartime,” a story of a young man who wants to make it as a home-security system salesman, is essentially about the selling of fear and, ultimately, how fear, unchecked, can lead to the destruction of love.

That show, which was seen as a reading called “Peacekeeper” at SCR, opened last week at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club. The female lead is played by Reddin’s wife, Leslie Lyles.

The temptation to make decisions based on fear is familiar to him--even if it does not seem to be on the same moral canvas as his characters experience.

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One reason he went into the Yale Drama School as a playwright, he said, was that he was afraid it would be too hard to get in as an actor.

Still, his first move after graduation was to go to New York as an actor. While he has never performed at SCR, his first impression on San Diego audiences was as an actor--he played the ingenuous Barnaby Tucker in “The Matchmaker” in 1987.

Audiences were surprised that a fellow who looked the epitome of a youthful, ruddy-cheeked Tucker was capable of writing plays as dark as “Life During Wartime” and “Nebraska,” a story about the fear and loneliness of men who guard the fatal buttons in missile silos. But they responded warmly, and both plays won San Diego Critics Circle Awards for best plays in succeeding years. “Nebraska” had originally been commissioned and turned down by SCR.

It has been only in the last seven years that Reddin has written a play a year. That may seem a big deal to some, but not to Reddin.

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“People think I write a lot because I write a play every year,” he said with a shrug. “It’s a couple of months of writing and then a couple of months of acting.”

His most recent acting stints have been in the movies. He plays a reporter in Oliver Stone’s film “The Doors” and a Harvard law student in “Reversal of Fortune,” the story of the Claus and Sonny von Bulow case starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close.

Still, for Reddin, playwrighting, which was initially his second love, has become a symbol of bravery--of challenging the unknown. If his plays exhibit some recurring themes, he takes pride in the differences between them.

“Every time you write a new play, it’s like the first play, and it’s judged on its own merits,” said Reddin, who lives in his native New Jersey and maintains an apartment in New York. “It never seems to get easier. It’s just a matter of learning to listen to my own voice and having confidence in what I have to say and the way I say it. Finding my voice and my style is something I’m still trying to do. I don’t have a formula.

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“I want to make sure that I’m not too comfortable or too safe. I want to dive into the world. I want to experience things.”

“The Russian Teacher” by Alexander Buravsky and adapted by Keith Reddin plays at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Curtain today: 8 p.m. Through April 14. Tickets: $22 to $29. Information: (714) 957-4033.


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