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O.C. THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Second Stage Will Try Play on ‘Words’

So many plays.

South Coast Repertory has decided to fill the final slot of the season on the Second Stage with the world premiere of Roger Rueff’s “So Many Words.” It will run April 20 to May 23. You may remember the play from the NewSCRipt reading in September with Joe Spano and Linda Purl.

More literate in tone than last season’s “Hospitality Suite,” a Rueff rumination about the spiritual lives of traveling salesmen, “So Many Words” dramatizes the plight of a noted writer and his wife when confronted by his biggest fan.

Like “Hospitality Suite,” which also premiered on the Second Stage, the new play takes place in a hotel room. This time, however, it’s not set in a bland Holiday Inn in Wichita, Kan., but in a swank bridal suite in Washington. The writer and his wife arrive there before going to a White House dinner, at which he is to receive an award.

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The fan they encounter, an intelligent and attractive young woman, is a literary disciple with an ardent belief in the writer’s unconventionally moral worldview. And she precipitates the central conflict of the drama, forcing the couple to confront feelings long buried in order to sustain the marriage.

“So Many Words” has yet to be cast. SCR would love to get Spano back for the role of the writer, but he’s not available.

Rueff and the theater are lucky finds for each other. When “Hospitality Suite” first came to SCR’s attention through a literary agent, Rueff was working as a chemical engineer by day and as a playwright by night. Today, having left his job at Amoco, he is strictly a writer.

“This business of getting whole days by myself to write is a new concept,” Rueff, 36, said Wednesday from his home in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill. “I love it.”

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He credits SCR with giving him much, if not all, of the confidence to take the leap into self-employment. “I wouldn’t have done it without that first production.”

But, he added, he also wouldn’t have done it without a “voluntary severance package” from Amoco, which began making massive staff reductions along with the rest of the oil industry shortly after his SCR premiere.

“The planets were all aligned,” said Rueff, who already has other play scripts in progress and several screenplays circulating in Hollywood.

DOUBLE EXPOSURE: Also contenders for the final Second Stage slot were Nancy Crawford’s “Mrs. Zelinsky Comes to Call” and Cecilia Fannon’s “To Distraction,” the recently announced prize winners of SCR’s fifth annual California Play Competition.

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They hadn’t been through the theater’s development process, though, a disadvantage at an institution that prides itself on the ability of its dramaturgy department to bring along new writers.

The fact that Rueff’s play had been through the process counted for a lot.

“His revisions came in last week,” SCR dramaturg Jerry Patch said, “and we thought he did a nice job on them. We’re just beginning our relationship with the two winners.”

That relationship gets underway in earnest for Crawford on March 15 and for Fannon on May 3, when their respective plays receive public readings at SCR. The readings are considered a major first step in the development process. (SCR originally announced that Fannon would get the first reading but reversed the dates Wednesday.)

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The schedule change means that L.A. Theatre Works, which also has awarded Fannon a prize for her play, will give “To Distraction” its first exposure before a live radio audience on March 31 and April 1 (for subsequent broadcast on KCRW). JoBeth Williams will direct. The cast tentatively includes Helen Slater of “Supergirl” fame and Katherine Helmond of “Soap” as well as Shirley Knight and Kelsey Grammer.

L.A. Theatre Works describes Fannon’s comedy this way: “Louise is having a bad life. Her husband is having a child with another woman. Her mother wants to move in. And she has run over the neighbor’s pet turtle. Enter Gerard, a stranger with whom she shares the most intimate details of her life--by phone.”

Fannon, a native New Yorker who has lived in Newport Beach for eight years, cautions against drawing any conclusions about her life from the script. “This is not an autobiographical play,” she said--by phone. “The turtle was really a mongoose.”

Fannon is the first to admit she has had a checkered writing career. “I’ve got five unproduced full-length plays and a dozen or so one-acts,” she said. “You can’t get more checkered than that.” Also, for 1 1/2 years during the mid-'80s, she was a head writer for the CBS daytime soap “The Guiding Light.” More recently, she ghosted a medical thriller for a surgeon.

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“I can’t reveal the name of the author,” she said, “or he’ll operate on me.”

WINNING BIG: They’re cheering at Cal State Fullerton. An AIDS-themed musical and a one-act drama, both by Cal State students, took top honors earlier this week in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

“What’s amazing,” festival administrator Mark Krikstan said from Washington, “is that two winning productions came from the same college. That has happened only twice before in the 25-year history of the festival. And I don’t think it has ever happened in the original-play categories.”

“All That He Was,” a musical by Larry Johnson and Cindy O’Connor, won the $2,500 National Student Playwrighting Award as well as the Kennedy Center Musical Award, which carries an honorarium of $3,000 for the authors and $1,000 for Cal State Fullerton.

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“The Manager,” a one-act by Darrin Shaughnessy, won the Short Play Award. Shaughnessy gets $1,000 as well as representation by the William Morris Agency, membership in the Dramatists Guild and publication by Samuel French Inc., a major licenser of theatrical properties.

Krikstan said “All That He Was” and “The Manager” were two of six winning shows chosen from 820 entries. The winners will be produced at a festival to be held at Kennedy Center from April 18 to 27.

Meanwhile, Jim Gray, who stars in “All That He Was,” was chosen as one of 16 students nationwide to compete on April 18 for the Irene Ryan Award, an annual prize given at the festival for the best college performer. Gray qualified by winning a regional competition, Krikstan said.

ITEMS GALORE: The Laguna Playhouse did very well, too, thank you. It netted $17,000 from “The Last Night at the Playhouse Speakeasy” a fund-raiser held Saturday at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach.

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“We feel very good,” playhouse executive director Richard Stein said, noting that despite tough fund-raising times the county’s major amateur theater company exceeded last year’s $14,000 take at a similar event.

“I wouldn’t say it came easily,” Stein added. “It took a lot of work to get us there.”

About 130 people attended; tickets cost $125. The premise of the casino-themed evening was that Prohibition was ending--this was the very last night--and the playhouse would have to give up operating as a speak-easy and go back to being a legit theater. No wonder they gambled like crazy.

Stein and company also staged a silent auction with theatrical items that included a chartreuse handbag beaded by Phyllis Diller. It was auctioned last year, as well, and re-donated on condition the winner keeps it for one year only and re-donates it for another auction.

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“It’s wonderfully gaudy,” Stein said of what could become the Diller Cup.

Apparently the playhouse is into celebrity items in a big way. At an upcoming fund-raiser tied to the Academy Awards presentations, they’ll be giving door prizes such as a Liz Taylor tote bag you can’t live without and a screenplay of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” autographed by Jack Lemmon.

The fund-raiser, set for March 29 and called “Hooray for Hollywood,” has a $15 admission fee. You’ll be able to watch a large-screen telecast of the Oscar broadcast, and you might even win a Phyllis Diller blouse if you pick the most Oscar winners.

O.C. THEATER REVIEWS: “Delicate Balance” soars at Cabrillo; “Fefu and Friends” sinks in Santa Ana. F26

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