UNCIVIL WAR : Corpses and Swordplay Are Just Some of the Risky Business in Jon Bastian's 'Noah Johnson'

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's less than two weeks before South Coast Repertory's world premiere of "Noah Johnson Had a Whore . . .," and the rehearsal grind is on. Besides a technician or two, there's not much of an audience--except for all those corpses lying around, a few propped up in front row seats.

"Noah Johnson" centers on a profiteering undertaker, his part-black apprentice (Noah) and a scheming prostitute during the Civil War, a time when dead bodies (and the need for sturdy caskets) were not in short supply. To create the verve of realism for Jon Bastian's black comedy, the plan is to have SCR's Second Stage thick with reclining dummies, done up prettily as traumatized corpses.

The ones already out inspire a few graveyard jokes among the cast, breaking the tedium. Jonathan McMurtry, who plays Jeremiah Bentonville, the conniving undertaker, is working through a key passage, absently carrying what passes for a severed head. He looks at it blankly, then sets it down in front of Melissa Weil, trying to find the character of Lydia, the opportunistic whore.

Director Martin Benson watches as both actors pause, not knowing what to do next. Maybe Jeremiah should fondle it, perhaps indulge in a little Hamlet reflection. What about a quick juggle, from Jeremiah to Lydia?

McMurtry has his own idea when Benson asks if the head should figure so baldly in the scene: "I don't know," McMurtry says, "maybe she should have to kiss it." Weil's big eyes get bigger, more playful; she looks as if she might go for such direction.

Benson just laughs. He's hoping everyone, including himself, will be laughing when "Noah Johnson" finally opens this Friday night.

The folks at SCR know this play, more so than most, is a gamble. It's the first major staging of an unknown work by an unknown writer. That's a risk right off. Beyond that, though, is the nature of "Noah Johnson."

There's suppose to be campiness in this encampment of wry characters and corpses, but will an audience pick up on all the dark humor or find any amusement swallowed by the Grand Guignol aura? Can the Civil War, a period that most people feel solemn about, be a proper setting for satire and mischief?

Benson, an acclaimed director who founded the Costa Mesa repertory with David Emmes in 1964, has what can best be described as a fearless attitude. He thinks Bastian's piece, runner-up in SCR's California Playwrights Competition last year, is both witty and thought-generating. Benson believes SCR's patrons, supposedly some of the more sophisticated in Orange County, will get the jokes without offense.

"Listen, the biggest risk is in boring an audience," Benson offers during a break. "The trick here is in letting them know from the beginning that the experience will be outrageous. Once they have that first laugh, then we're OK."

Uh-huh, but what if they don't laugh?

Benson smiles, "Then we'll have to rely on sex."

If the rehearsals are a clue, "Noah Johnson" is sexy, if you can ignore all the carnage that surrounds Lydia's eroticism (in one scene, she enjoys a bit of slapstick, tossing body parts over her shoulder while searching a casket). Weil, at least at this point, approaches her with a primitive intensity as Lydia manipulates Noah, and tries, less successfully, to maneuver Jeremiah.

Dominic Hoffman, who plays Noah, and Weil, are running through an encounter where Lydia uses her attractiveness to compromise Noah. It's a moment that's crucial to the plot and requires both finesse and heat. The episode ends with Lydia leaping into the arms of Noah, a wild kiss clinching the moment.

After one particularly enthusiastic take, Weil, with her legs still wrapped around Hoffman, takes a breath and grins, "Think that'll do it?"

Playwright Bastian will admit, when prodded a bit, that he has much riding on "Noah Johnson": The real beginning of a successful writing career, more talk about a movie deal (he said that Disney has made overtures about a screenplay), the crystallization of a personal dream. But on the surface, the 29-year-old Loyola-Marymount film school grad seems cool, unruffled, satisfied.

First off, this has been a giant leap in his career. Just four days before he was told about winning second prize in the playwrights contest, Bastian had been rejected for a Mark Taper Forum writers' workshop where he'd hoped to develop another of his plays, "Horse Latitude."

It also vindicated his faith in "Noah Johnson." Bastian had developed the comedy in a writers' group at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles, but that playhouse decided it wasn't ready to produce. "They thought it seemed more like a novel. I went into a mini-writer's panic," he remembered. "Luckily, I got over that."

Since SCR took on the script, there have been a few revisions, but Bastian likes the results. No bitter stories of battles with Benson and other SCR honchos about the changes, only happy tales about cooperation and good vibes. But there must be something that peeves him about the process . . . .

"I feel very good about everything. Really, Martin is doing a good job," Bastian insisted. "There is one thing--I live about 50 miles away (in West Hollywood) and it can be a hassle getting to rehearsals."

The play is Bastian's fifth full-length work since he began writing in earnest after graduating from Loyola-Marymount in 1984. Its genesis began with a scan of The Times, when Bastian noticed a column by Jack Smith that looked into the origin of the word undertaker.

"He wrote something like, 'Undertakers were following battalions around like camp whores,' " recalled Bastian. "I wrote the first scene with Jeremiah and Noah and didn't really know where I was going to go. Then Lydia walked in, and the rest of the play came out in a rush."

What Bastian ended up with has a few shimmying plot twists that won't be revealed here. But the basic premise finds Jeremiah, sort of a lovable swindler if there really is such a thing, taking advantage of the war by inflating the numbers of the dead and being paid for the surplus.

He finds trouble when the North questions the figures from the last skirmish. Faced with hanging if discovered, Jeremiah has two days to come up with 6,822 Union bodies, about three times the actual number of casualties. The lovely Lydia enters the scene, ostensibly seeking the body of her husband, and events take on new angles.

As for the play's comic ghastliness, Bastian defends it all as a valid way to get across the message of "war is hell." Besides, he feels people should be prepared for drama, both visual and otherwise, when the stage lights go on.

Much of his confidence, Bastian pointed out, was inspired by a simple reading--only actors, the script and little else--at SCR last May that apparently was well received. "I didn't have any idea of what to expect, but the laughter let me know I had done something right.

"Sure, this isn't sunshine and roses, no way. But I believe we should have them in the palm of our hands soon after it starts," Bastian said. Then, after a pause, "At least I hope we will."

McMurtry, who will bear much of the burden for making Jeremiah and, by extension, "Noah Johnson" accessible, is frank about his feelings: "When I first read it, I hated it. I mean, I didn't get it; the humor or anything else.

"I kept thinking about how they were going to get all those bodies on stage and what that would look like. It just didn't seem to work."

But McMurtry, an accomplished stage actor with credits at SCR (he may be remembered in Hugh Whitemore's "Breaking the Code" in 1989), the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, was talked into the May reading. As with Bastian, it became a turning point.

"This was the first play I've read where I was dead wrong in my initial reaction," he said. "I thought it was perverse, but the audience's reaction was incredibly different; you could tell they thought it was funny and interesting. Since then, I've really had to re-evaluate."

McMurtry still has misgivings about the comedy's "bizarre elements" and, at least during the rehearsals, was struggling to understand Jeremiah ("I have to zero in on the danger of the character; he is capable of violence and I don't know where that comes from"). He's also trying to decipher exactly what Bastian's main thrust is.

"Is it that war is bad? Is it asking what death is? He definitely has a style, but I haven't been able to figure out the answer yet. That makes me a bit uneasy, but it'll all come to me. It better."

Talk to Jerry Patch, SCR's dramaturge since 1967, and little doubt enters the conversation. He thinks "Noah Johnson" is first-rate, a play that he describes as "Mark Twain crossed with Joe Orton."

"It take chances and does some things that others don't, but that's what's good about it," Patch argued. "How are we suppose to see the world, as all ice cream and desserts? I don't think so. Most of the time it's a little grittier than that."

It was no fluke, he added, that the play was one of only two chosen from more than 300 entries in SCR's playwrights contest. "Noah Johnson" finished second to Abe Polsky's "Custer's Last Band," which won the grand prize of $5,000. Bastian received $3,000 and the grander honor of having his work produced.

SCR has no plans to stage Polsky's drama; so why, would they choose a play deemed not quite as good, the runner-up?

Patch explained that, in many ways, it comes down to simple pragmatism."Noah Johnson" has only five characters (besides the principals, there's Major Frost, a Union soldier, and Col. Grass, a Confederate; both played by veteran SCR actor Ron Boussom) and relatively limited set requirements (especially if you don't think all those corpses are a big deal), while "Custer's Last Band" has more than 10 roles. Polsky's play would require SCR's larger Mainstage, but the repertory was set on using the smaller Second Stage, both because of the lesser costs and because there was an opening in that venue's schedule.

And there was another reason. Patch said there was "more of a passion to produce" Bastian's comedy than there was for Polsky's drama.

"We don't feel like we made a mistake" in the contest, he said. "Polsky's work has obvious merits, but so does 'Noah Johnson.' It just got people excited and, with the other things, it was the one we all wanted to run with.

"Sometimes one play will seem better on paper, it will have all the qualities that will work. But then another play will fix in the mind and work in a different way. That's pretty much what we have here."

What: Jon Bastian's "Noah Johnson Had a Whore . . ."

When: Preview Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8:30 p.m. Official opening Friday, Jan. 24, at 8:30 p.m. Continues Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., through Feb. 23.

Where: South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street exit. North to Town Center Drive. (SCR is about one block east of South Coast Plaza.)

Wherewithal: $22 to $31. (Preview is $15 to $18.)

Where to call: (714) 957-4033.

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