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STAGE : Back to Stage One : After ‘MASH’ and a decade of filmmaking, Alan Alda chooses to return to live theater in a London production of ‘Our Town’

<i> David Gritten is a London-based free-lance writer</i>

“Last time I acted in front of a live audience,” Alan Alda recalls with narrowed eyes, “was in a small theater in New Jersey. The play was called ‘Luv,’ by Murray Schisgal, and my father, Robert, was in it with me.

“I can’t put an exact date on that, but I figure it must have been about 1969.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 06, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 6, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Last Sunday’s story on Alan Alda misidentified the theater in which Neil Simon’s “Jake’s Women” was produced in 1990. San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre mounted the production.

Since then, it’s fair to say, the younger Alda’s life has changed drastically. More than a decade as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce on TV’s “MASH” made him one of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces worldwide; that series, and its continuing popularity in reruns throughout the world, have made him extraordinarily rich. Then in the 1980s he turned to film, following the success of “The Four Seasons” by becoming the complete auteur-- writing, directing and starring in “Sweet Liberty,” “A New Life” and “Betsy’s Wedding.”

At 55, Alda’s at a point in his career where he can do exactly what he wants. So it might seem odd that he has opted to return to the stage. He has just opened here in a production of Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 play “Our Town,” in the role of the Stage Manager. Notices have been respectful and Alda’s name outside the theater has already attracted enough bookings to ensure a successful limited run until December.

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Next year Alda returns to Broadway, where he first made a name for himself in the 1960s for performances in plays like “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “The Apple Tree.” He will play the lead in Neil Simon’s play “Jake’s Women,” which was produced at La Jolla Playhouse in the spring of 1990 before Simon pulled it out of production for rewrites. The revamped version is expected to open in March.

Why a return to the nightly labor and modest paycheck of live theater? Obviously Alda can afford to indulge himself, but as he tells it, he has missed the highs of stage work.

“I love the chance to start a play and not come out of it for two hours,” he noted. “The hardest thing about going into movies and TV was to leave that and learn to chop a performance up into little fragments, never getting the pleasure of tying them together. In movies, the director ‘acts’ for you, but in theater, the actor has final cut every night.”

As it turned out, Alda had also become overburdened with the responsibilities of making films. “I think I could do a better job if I didn’t try and do as much as I’ve done in the past few years,” he said, sipping tea in the Covent Garden offices of “Our Town’s” publicist. “I don’t want to write and direct at the same time. I think it’ll be better if I break them up a little.”

After “The Four Seasons,” a surprise hit, the law of diminishing returns applied to his films; even the grown-up audiences Alda was targeting seemed to lose interest. But that wasn’t the trouble, Alda insists: “The films achieved what they set out to, and they made money. in 1989, Alda too a break from both writing and directing and returned to just acting--playing a sleazy, arrogant womanizing Hollywood producer in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It started as a walk-on role, but through improvisation with Allen became a major character; Alda walked away with some of the best reviews of his career. “And I had fun,” he adds. “Which taught me a lot.”

Last year, though, he resumed his role as a triple threat for “Betsy’s Wedding.”

“By then, I wasn’t having a good time. After int, I didn’t want to work or write for a while. Instead I spent time rethinking things.”

The offer to do “Our Town,” then, came at an opportune time. An element of challenge was also involved: Wilder’s sometimes somber meditation on life and death, as it affects the citizens of Grover’s Corner, N.H., in the early years of this century, has become a beloved popular play in America, but has virtually no reputation in other countries.

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“It hasn’t been done in London for 45 years,” said Alda. “I was intrigued to see what British audiences--any non-Americans, really--would make of it. Would they get it? Well, they get it. We’ve been having wonderful responses from our audiences. Me, I think they’d get it anywhere. I’d love to direct it in China. I think it’d play there.

“I love ‘Our Town’ and I think it’s one of the best American plays. When it’s played out, it’s unbelievably affecting. I don’t believe a production has been done that wasn’t affecting on some level. It speaks to a longing we all have for survival and understanding in spite of the confusion we feel about what we’re doing on earth, whether we’re just filling in time.”

Alda’s hair may be more gray than in his “MASH” days, but his trademark foxy grin flashes frequently, and his quick sardonic wit inevitably recalls Hawkeye, as does the khaki shirt he happens to be wearing. His enthusiasm for “Our Town,” and for working on stage with a company of actors, is palpable. He singles out for mention his young co-stars Robert Sean Leonard (“Dead Poets Society”), the only other American in the cast, and Jemma Redgrave, niece of actresses Vanessa and Lynn.

As for “Jake’s Women,” he recalls: “Neil Simon sent me that play a couple of years ago and asked if I was interested. After (Simon rewrote it) we got together and read it with other actors in front of invited audiences in New York and California. It was such an exciting experience I just wanted to put aside time to do it. It’s an interesting play and a wonderful part. Neil’s been quite experimental with this, and I admire him for taking chances.”

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Though he expects to be engaged in theater for another 12 months, Alda claims he is not “shutting the door on movies” thereafter. “If something came up and it can be fitted in, fine. But I can say I won’t be doing another TV series, because it’s just too exhausting.”

It certainly was the way Alda did it. For most of the 11-season, 251-episode run of “MASH” he commuted each week from his family home in suburban New Jersey to Hollywood, so he could spend weekends with his wife, Arlene, and their three daughters. “I tried coming home every three weeks or so, but that was no good. I’d come back and have no idea what was going on at home.” Now his daughters are grown and Alda reports: “I’m looking forward to becoming a grandfather.”

All the evidence points to him going through a significant life passage. “I think so,” he agrees. “I also know something I didn’t know as a kid--there’s an actual number to the days I have left. Anyone who gets that awareness either uses a bottle to forget it, or starts to get particular about how they spend that number of days. I want to spend as many of them as I can happily--which is why I’m here doing theater.”

Around the mid-'70s Alda emerged as the prototype of a New Man: liberal, sensitive, pro-feminist, opposed to all kinds of inequalities and a stern monitor of sexist jokes in “MASH” scripts. This role grew and grew: President Carter appointed him to a commission for the observance of International Women’s Year in 1976, and he was prominent in trying to advance the status of women through the Equal Rights Amendment. Since its defeat in 1982 he has remained silent on the issue. “At least everyone’s thinking shifted,” he says now. “As a result, people who wouldn’t think about certain equalities now take them for granted.”

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The British press has dwelt on Alda’s long absence from the stage, and the extent of his trepidation about returning. “One TV interviewer asked me if I was nervous, and seemed quite disappointed when I said I really wasn’t,” said Alda.

“It’s been a long time away, but it’s not as severe as all that. I’ve had quite a lot of experiences in front of live people. I’ve made political speeches to audiences of 15,000, and they were almost like performance. So it’s not as big a deal for me as everyone seems to think. But it sure is fun.”


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