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Love, by the Numbers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets that speak of love in all its variations--enthralling, peculiar, noble, devastating--some of which he more or less invented.

“For a lot of people, the sonnets are not an easy read,” said Eric Bogosian, like Shakespeare a writer-performer, though of a very different sort of poetry. “They’re clouded by the difficulty of the language, and they’re about things that are hard to understand.”

Bogosian, perhaps best known for “Talk Radio,” thrives on streetwise clarity, however, and speaks his mind in all his work by cutting through the haze of modern life with tart humor, even when it comes to love.

The latest instance, “Bitter Sauce,” leads off an evening of original one-act plays based on the sonnets and written by seven notable American dramatists--Bogosian, Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Marsha Norman, William Finn and Ntozake Shange--all of whom were commissioned by the Acting Company, a New York troupe founded by John Houseman that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary.

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The program, titled “Love’s Fire,” is presented Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Two performances of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” follow Friday and Saturday.

Both productions went on tour earlier this year. “Love’s Fire” premiered in January at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. After Cerritos, it will play the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert and the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, before heading to London for a three-week engagement, followed by an open-ended run in June at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York.

“The sonnet I was given, No. 118, is basically about trying to come up with a rationale for cheating on your lover,” Bogosian said in a recent interview from Manhattan. “It’s some kind of crazy idea that it’s good medicine for love. The love is too strong and has to be cut with something. It doesn’t make sense, logically, and my little play doesn’t make sense either. But in terms of the heart it makes sense, and that’s the only logic he’s concerned with in the sonnet.”

Shakespeare presents human emotion “like a single-malt whiskey, not like a blended scotch,” Bogosian added. “He goes to the core, past old-fashioned, to something very modern and immediate.

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Each of the plays is written in a different style; all are directed by Mark Lamos. Bogosian’s is a light sketch about a beautiful young woman in her wedding gown who’s having second thoughts about getting married (and getting drunk over it) and her “nice guy” groom who finds out she’s two-timing him with a Neanderthal biker who’s into rough sex.

“The thing that makes Shakespeare really, really great is his terrific insight into human nature--without the psychobabble we indulge in today,” Bogosian said. “He wasn’t into psychology or 12-step programs or political correctness or even democracy, which wasn’t around in his time.”

Wasserstein’s play, “Waiting for Philip Glass,” inspired by Sonnet 94, is a note-perfect satire on the New York glitterati who summer in the Hamptons--the moneyed class that jets off for the day to Bilbao, Spain, to attend the opening of the Guggenheim museum there, and jets back to dish or marvel about Frank Gehry’s design over cocktails with Henry Kissinger or Diane Sawyer, no doubt also just back from Bilbao.

“They gave me two sonnets to pick from,” said Wasserstein, who won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “The Heidi Chronicles” and, with Kushner, Norman and Finn--themselves Pulitzer or Tony Award winners--as well as Guare, is one of the few contemporary playwrights, who get produced on Broadway.

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Wasserstein was attracted to Sonnet 94, she said, because “it gets sort of dark, and I like the line about the lilies: ‘For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’ The people I wrote about are so stony-faced. They have really turned into something other than themselves.

“The best thing about the evening was that I liked all the plays,” she said from New York. “They’re written so differently. The others have such strong, unique voices. It made me proud of being a playwright.

“The nicest thing that happened to me was that after ‘Love’s Fire’ opened and we all saw it, John Guare called me up and said I should expand my piece into a larger play. He called me up at midnight! And I do really want to write a play about that milieu.”

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It’s not the first time the Acting Company has commissioned and staged an evening of theater pieces based on writings from the past. During the mid-'80s it staged an evening called “Orchards,” inspired by some of Anton Chekov’s short stories and written by Guare, Wasserstein, Spalding Gray, David Mamet, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams.

“We don’t do terribly many new plays because they’re not easy to book on the road, and we mostly do the classics,” said producing director Margot Harley, who co-founded the company with Houseman and has helped it turn out such alumni as Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone, Gerald Guttierez, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers and Keith David.

“We’re dedicated to the development of classical actors, so we’re dedicated to the classics and the language,” she said. “This is something of a departure for us--but only because they’re new plays. . . . These writers are language masters themselves.”

Harley warns, however, that “Love’s Fire” is moderately graphic “and not for the faint of heart.” An evening about “love and passion and sex” dealing with relationships between men and women, women and women, and men and men ought to take risks, she believes.

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“That may not be everybody’s cup of tea,” Harley said, “but it’s important . . . and the sonnets give us a classical connection that makes it bookable.”

* “Love’s Fire” is performed Thursday, and “Romeo and Juliet” on Friday-Saturday, at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8 p.m. $28-$38. (562) 916-8500.


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