The Wizard of 'Slavs!' : Playwright Tony Kushner is a wonder with words, but he's also the magician who joined the Taper and the La Jolla Playhouse in co-producing his post-'Angels' play.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Tony Kushner has a knack for bringing strange bedfellows together to dramatic effect.

Consider the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter and the strung-out housewife Harper or the vicious Roy Cohn and the confused Mormon Joe in "Angels in America."

There are more odd couplings to be found in the playwright's post-"Angels" play, "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday.

Yet the prizewinning dramatist's matchmaking apparently isn't limited to his characters' onstage lives. With "Slavs!"--which is set in Moscow between 1985 and 1992--Kushner has also played the part of offstage yenta, bringing together two major Southern California theaters.

The West Coast premiere production, directed by La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Michael Greif, is being presented as a co-production between the Taper and the La Jolla Playhouse.

"Slavs!" is the first joint venture between these two leading California players. And so far, so good.

After being staged last year in Louisville, Ky.; New York; New Haven, Conn., and Baltimore (in productions all directed by Lisa Peterson), "Slavs!" (in the Greif version) opened in La Jolla in August.

Although the La Jolla Playhouse traditionally draws part of its audience from the Greater Los Angeles Area--and those patrons might well have opted to wait until the production reached the Taper--there hasn't been any discernible negative effect on ticket sales so far.

" 'Slavs!' did well," reports Greif, speaking by telephone from La Jolla. "That bodes well for the future in terms of continued work with the Taper. It's good for theaters to combine their resources, and certainly I share many of what I perceive as Gordon [Davidson's] and the Taper's tastes."

Says Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum: "What's special about this [co-production] is the closeness of the writer to the production and the Southern California proximity [of the theaters], which I hope means we can do more."

The La Jolla Playhouse has entered into similar collaborative arrangements before, with such theaters as Seattle Repertory, Houston's Alley Theatre and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Similarly, the Taper has co-produced shows with Berkeley Repertory, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Yale Repertory Theatre, to name a few.

In terms of intra-Southern California collaborations, there have hardly been any. During the 1985-86 season, the Taper and San Diego's Old Globe Theatre were to have shared a production of "Romance Language," but the work never ended up being seen at the more southern venue. And in 1990, the La Jolla Playhouse mounted a co-production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" with the Orange County Performing Arts Center, at a cost of more than $500,000. That effort was generally assumed to have been intended for Broadway, but it never made it.

As for "Slavs!" the participants are somewhat fuzzy on how the co-venture was first conceived, though all agree that Kushner played a key role.

"Tony suggested it when he was around last summer," says Greif, referring to when Kushner was in La Jolla working on the Playhouse's production of his adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan."

"I asked about the possibility of producing 'Slavs!' and he said he would like us to consider it as a co-production [with the Taper]," Greif says. "One of our real responsibilities is to serve the artists, and I think we're the wiser for [having done that this way]."

Kushner's initiative apparently helped to avert the possibility of competing stagings.

"Tony played a strong role, which is unusual," Davidson says. "Really what we started to talk about was could there be two productions? That began the dialogue that said, 'Let's try and do this together.' "

The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, however, is characteristically quick to spread the credit around. As he remembers it, Greif expressed interest in "Slavs!" first, though Kushner had already committed to presenting his next play at the Taper. "They both wanted to do it first," Kushner says by telephone from New York, " . . . so I thought if they joined forces [it would work out]."

Working out the details was comparatively simple, given that all of the parties involved were in basic agreement from the outset.

"It happened fairly organically," Kushner says. "My agent brokered the whole thing. Gordon and Michael were eager to find common ground."

From a practical standpoint, a co-production was an economizing move for both theaters. "The reality of our financial situations is that we are always looking for ways to get the work that we want up," Greif says.

Says Davidson: "The advantages are, on one level, some shared costs at a time when that means a lot. That part worked extremely well."

The downside, if there was one, didn't loom large.

"There was a little concern that there would be inroads into attendance at both theaters," Davidson says. "But 'Slavs!' is special enough, and we happened to have a shorter slot [available for it, in the season]."

A rtistic concerns also had to be negotiated. There was, for in stance, the matter of creating a physical production that would work in both the Taper and the La Jolla Playhouse's Forum space, both of which are thrust stages.

"At first I couldn't quite see how the production would work in two different spaces," Greif says. "Both have enormous height, but the way in which we chose to close down that height works for both spaces."

Then, too, there was the task of casting an ensemble that would be able to stay together during the course of two separate runs at different theaters.

"A long gig is always difficult," Greif says. "On the other hand, it seemed like a wonderful progression for a company to go from La Jolla to Los Angeles [and] the opportunity to perform in Los Angeles [was an enticement for the actors]."

In fact, it may have been a bit too much of an enticement--as the company found out when, on the first day of L.A. rehearsals, Robin Bartlett left to take a role in the movie "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves." Company member Randy Danson was moved into the roles Bartlett had played, and Barbara eda-Young joined the ensemble.

Greif had known that he'd have some restaging to do, but he hadn't anticipated the cast change.

"I imagined that we'd be tweaking and focusing and now we've found we had a lot more to do," he says. "It's really been invigorating, at the same time it's been anxious."

In fact, the opportunity for a director to refine his work is usually an advantage of a co-production like this. It offers some compensation for the often-rushed conditions under which much American theater is created.

"Artistically, it's a great frustration to have a play on a rehearsal schedule like you have in the United States," Kushner says. "You just begin to figure out what you're doing and it's over."

Then again, creative changes are never a simple matter, and that's especially true once a production has been been up and running.

"Maybe you don't want to do the exact same production," Davidson says. "You want to make changes and those are difficult, so it requires careful collaboration in the beginning."*

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"SLAVS! THINKING ABOUT THE LONGSTANDING PROBLEMS OF VIRTUE AND HAPPINESS": Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Dates: Opens Thursday. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. Prices: $28-$35.50. Phone: (213) 365-3500 (Ticketmaster).

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