Stage for New Talent : * Theatre East presents its first evening of one-act plays in over 20 years. The 10 pieces vary in mood and style.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the more galleries there are, the better for the art gallery scene. The more orchestras and ensembles there are, the better for the music scene. The more theaters there are, well, bully for theater.

But that may be why it's called conventional wisdom. The irony of so many theaters in Los Angeles, and more than 30 in the San Fernando Valley, is that without a distinct identity, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Some new Valley companies have easily whipped that problem. Despite the deliberately uncommercial name, A Noise Within is positioned as the Valley's--and some think, the area's--premiere classical ensemble. You want good sketch comedy? Easy. You go to Acme Comedy Theatre.

It's not so easy with Theatre East, and company president Geoffrey Woodhall seems to know it. Despite a track record of more than 30 years as both a workshop arena for actors, writers and directors and a producing theater, Theatre East is strangely obscure to everyone but the local theater community. The public might only know it as that place above Jerry's Famous Deli.

"Because we don't do shows a lot," Woodhall says in the theater's lobby, "playwrights don't really know us. And it's a continual question for us here: Are we a producing organization, or an ongoing workshop for developing craft?"

The answer, he continues, is both, but the producing end is about to get a more public face, as the company's first evening of one-act plays in over 20 years, collectively titled "Turning Point," opens tonight.

The 10 pieces, all around or under 10 minutes long, don't fit any easy label, which may make it all the more difficult to identify just what Theatre East does. But Woodhall, with co-producers Ted Donaldson and Joseph Patridge, have tried to fashion an evening of shifting moods and styles. "Some are very sweet," says Woodhall, 32, "and some will definitely be controversial."

The opener, John Touchstone's "The Telephone," involves an elderly rural couple getting their first phone. This, and the following "My Father, My Dad" by Bruce Kirby, are among several pieces about seniors, which naturally follows for a company with an age range from early 20s to 70s. While Woodhall describes Michael Cole Dinelli's "The Donut Shop" as "borderline existentialist, about two guys waiting for a woman in a New York doughnut shop," he says that the next work, Allison Gregory's "Breathing Room," (which Woodhall directs) is "the show's one intensely dramatic piece." Jacob Edelman's play-within-a-play, "Vendetta," features some of the theater's 20 or so apprentice artists--a group Woodhall himself used to belong to in Theatre East's sister company, Theatre Artists Workshop of Westport (Conn.).

The second set's mixture of sweetness and seriousness may be even more extreme, as Jim Inman's self-descriptive "Two Old Codgers Sitting on a Bench in a Country Town Square" (directed by Patridge) leads into Daisey Crane's South Central-based "Bad Talking Boys." The evening heads home with William Borden's absurd miniature, "Ledge," about two people ready to leap off a building ledge, then "Karl and Mary Are Afraid" by Jaime Meyer which Woodhall unhesitatingly calls "pretty brilliant stuff." Meyer's black comedy about white-and-black paranoia was no way to end the night, Woodhall and company decided, so the capper is Hindi Brooks' retirement-era comedy, "The Present."

Woodhall says some members "have the impression that this show was put together in the past couple of months. This has actually been a year in the making, with Joe (Patridge) really spearheading things. It was his idea to come up with a way of attracting new writing talent to this theater.

"Ted (Donaldson) then became invaluable in the selection process," a winnowing down of a mountain of submissions. "Ted and I are very close in taste, which is that blend of the entertaining and the challenging. Once we picked the obvious stuff of quality, our choosing among the good pieces was almost automatic."

"Geoff and I got along so well because we both have a very strong sense of structure," Donaldson says.

Woodhall knows that it would be a different "Turning Point" with a different selection group. "We are, basically, editors. What I really hope," he says, "is that we can do this annually, that we can look back at 20 years of one-acts, just like we can now look back at 30-some years as a company."

If that happens, Theatre East won't be lost in the L.A. theater morass any longer.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Turning Point."

Location: Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Price: $12.

Call: (818) 760-4160.

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