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George Street Premieres Laurents' Latest... Elizabeth Ashley Is Amanda in Hartford... Cincinnati Feasts on Lanford Wilson...

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NEW JERSEY

The George Street Playhouse offers the world premiere of Claudio Lazlo by the legendary Arthur Laurents in New Brunswick through May 20. Turkish actress Cigdem Onat stars in this play-within-a-play, as a contemporary actress playing an opera star sympathetic to the Nazis in 1946. It explores the ethical responsibilities of an artist. Playhouse Artistic Director David Saint directs.

Also running through May 20 at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is the new musical Immortal Interlude, with book by Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, music by Merek Royce Press, and lyrics by SuzAnne Barabas, who also directs. The eight-character work takes place one weekend in 1939 in Newport, R.I., when a stranger, Death, visits a gathering of bluebloods before the start of World War II.

At the Rep on May 7, the Script-in-Hand New Play Series continues with Best Kept Secrets, written by and featuring Katharine Houghton, best known for portraying the daughter of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's 39th season runs June 12-Dec. 30, opening with a double bill: The Comedy of Errors, June 12-July 1, will be directed by Brian B. Crowe; a spin-off, The Bomb-itty of Errors, a recent Off-Broadway rap musical adaptation, is to run simultaneously at a location TBA. Chekhov's The Three Sisters follows, July 10-29, directed by AD Bonnie J. Monte. Next is Hamlet, Aug. 7-Sept. 2, marking actor and director Tom Gilroy's NJSF debut. Jared Harris will make his Festival debut in the title role. Molière's Tartuffe follows, Sept. 11-30, and will be directed by the innovative Paul Mullins. Arthur Miller's The Crucible is on from Oct. 23-Nov. 18 and will feature Dana Reeve as Elizabeth Proctor under Monte's direction. Joseph Discher will direct The Fantasticks, Dec. 4-30, to close the season.

In Beach Haven, Surflight's 52nd season includes two state premieres: High Society (June 26-July 8) and Jekyll and Hyde (Aug. 7-19). Also scheduled are South Pacific (May 30-June 10), Gigi (June 12-24), West Side Story (July 10-22), Annie (July 24-Aug. 5), Carousel (Aug. 21-Sept. 2), 110 in the Shade (Sept. 4-16), Angel Street (Sept. 19-23), Blithe Spirit (Sept. 26-30), Art (Oct. 3-7), and A Christmas Carol (Dec. 7-16).

Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

CONNECTICUT

Women dominate the news from Connecticut. At Hartford Stage, Elizabeth Ashley is a funny, formidable Amanda in Michael Wilson's staging of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (through May 6). But it's Anne Dudek as Laura who walks away with the audience's heart. The blonde, willowy Dudek eschews excessive frailty to paint a portrait of an outwardly weak but inwardly steely schoolgirl. Under the Gentleman Caller's gentle prodding, she blossoms into a hopeful, even flirtatious young lady. It is a performance of great variety and thought that deepens and dominates the production.

Another mom-with-a-daughter problem is at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, where Elizabeth Franz is giving a fierce performance in Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment (through May 13), directed by Doug Hughes. As a Holocaust survivor who has come to Florida to escape her schizophrenic daughter, Franz creates a woman torn between memory and desire. Mouth twitching, eyes panicked, she is equally adept at softening when romance approaches, stiffening when dealing with her increasingly unhinged offspring.

At the Stamford Theatre Works, Deirdre Madigan brings panache and credibility to Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf (through May 6). Director Douglas Moser injects as much life as he can into this black comedy, a pale imitation of Jean Anouilh.

In East Haddam, the Goodspeed Opera House production of Lerner and Loewe's 1947 operetta, Brigadoon (through June 23), is beautiful to look at and listen to. But the real heroes are director Greg Ganakas and, especially, choreographer Peggy Hickey, who have sharpened the gooey show. Taking her cue from the original dances by Agnes DeMille, Hickey uses a combination of ballet and folk to create movement that is both exulting and yearning.

Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven closes its season with Big Night (through May 19). The 1928 work by Dawn Powell, a neglected author once dubbed "lady wit," is a Jazz Age baby, full of boozing and partying. It was to be the final production for Rep Artistic Director and Drama School Dean Stan Wojewodski, Jr., but he's staying on until a successor is found.

David A. Rosenberg

CINCINNATI/INDIANAPOLIS

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC), which stages local, regional, and national premieres, recently closed Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends. It wasn't a totally satisfying production—TV actress Pamela Sue Martin was not quite up to her role as the divorcing Beth, although local professionals Robert B. Rais and Annie Fitzpatrick gave the show believability and impact—but the sold-out run was a shot in the arm for ETC, which mounted the production on short notice when the rights to Love, Janis were withdrawn.

Even before ETC could strike its Dinner set, a police shooting of an unarmed black man less than a block from the theatre set off three days of rioting, resulting in a four-day curfew that shut down performances all over town, including the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's opening of The Mystery of Irma Vep.

In early May, the Cincinnati Playhouse opens the 20th anniversary production of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, re-teaming Wilson's most frequent director, Marshall W. Mason, with designer John Lee Beatty and lighting designer Dennis Parichy. In the wake of the riots, the Playhouse provided rehearsal space for ETC's cast of Wilson's A Sense of Place, also opening in early May.

It's no coincidence that two theatres are staging shows by Wilson. In fact, three additional members of the new League of Cincinnati Theatres are producing the playwright's works during May: The Know Theatre Tribe (Redwood Curtain), IF Theatre Collective (Burn This), and Ovation Theatre Classics (four one-acts).

TV star Rocky Carroll is back in his hometown for a mid-May production of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson with The Children's Theatre. Carroll, who played Lymon in the original production, is directing a cast of actors from southwestern Ohio and playing Big Willie. School and public audiences will see the show at Cincinnati's 2,800-seat Taft Theatre.

Elsewhere in the region, The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis opened a 16-performance, three-week run of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues on Feb. 15. To meet audience demand, The Phoenix eventually presented 39 performances, extending the run until April 15. The extension has forced the rearrangement of the balance of the season, but no one's complaining. Currently on stage is the Midwestern premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers.

Rick Pender

PITTSBURGH/COLUMBUS

Tracy Bridgen has succeeded Marc Masterson as artistic director of Pittsburgh's City Theatre. Bridgen, 35, served since 1998 as associate artistic director of Connecticut's Hartford Stage Company, where she directed new play development. Masterson left in December to become artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. City Theatre, which recently presented A Hole in the Dark, will end its season with Red Herring (May 4-27).

Pittsburgh Public Theatre, presenting a popular Romeo and Juliet (through May 27), is preparing for a busy summer with Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter (June 7-July 8), and its Young Company production of The Crucible (July 19-29). Artistic Director Ted Pappas (who staged Romeo) has announced the 2001-2002 season: Medea (Sept. 27-Oct. 28); Paper Doll (Nov. 8-Dec. 9), Mark Hampton and Barbara Zitwer's new play about novelist Jacqueline Susann, to be directed by Broadway vet Leonard Foglia; H.M.S. Pinafore (Jan. 31-March 3); Dinner with Friends (March 14-April 14); Awake and Sing! (April 25-May 26); and Fully Committed (June 6-July 7).

Columbus' Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO) just keeps getting better, following a brilliant, sold-out Three Tall Women with a superb The Grapes of Wrath (through May 5). Artistic Director Geoffrey Nelson stages the largest-cast show in CATCO's 16-year history with intimacy and poignant dignity. Standouts: Michael Stewart Allen's eloquent Tom Joad; David Combs' diffident Preacher; Marianne Timmons' compassionate Rose; musicians Jim DeGrand and John Schomberg; and David Ayers and Jackie Bates' poignant grandparents.

Columbus' fast-rising Red Herring Theatre Ensemble caps its eighth season with a well-staged, arena-style production of Anna Weiss (through May 5). Krista Apple (as the complex title character), Paisley Stowe (her wounded patient), and Artistic Director Michael Garrett Herring (the accused father) perform Mike Cullen's taut psychological drama about False Memory Syndrome with emotional intelligence under John Kuhn's direction.

Red Herring, which has launched Cowtown Comedy Players as its improvisational late-night troupe, will present four plays and a musical in its 2001-2002 season: John Patrick Shanley's Italian American Reconciliation (July 12-Aug. 18), Toni Press-Coffman's Touch (Sept. 20-Oct. 13), Will Kern's Hellcab (Nov. 29-Dec. 22), Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts musical revue, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Feb. 14-March 9), and Paula Vogel's Hot & Throbbing (April 25-May 18).

Michael Grossberg

BOSTON

The audience at press night for the new musical comedy, Curse of the Bambino, at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston included a liberal sprinkling of local sports reporters and commentators among the usual theatre types. That's because Curse, which is receiving its world premiere (April 20-May 19), chronicles the dismal World Series record of the Boston Red Sox since 1920, when the team's manager sold its greatest asset, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees.

Curse won't replace Damn Yankees as the Great American Pastime Musical, but it's an entertaining show, especially if you're a fan. David Kruh's book is a good one, funny and stylish, and Spiro Veloudos' brisk, uncluttered direction fits the material perfectly. Steven Bergman's songs are too monochromatic to be really memorable (although "Baseball Man" offers a star turn for R. C. Jacobs and John Davin, who play the owners of the Sox and the Yanks), and the pastiches of period songs that he uses to describe the Sox's World Series failures, while virtuosically performed by the male quartet of Rooters, simply have too much factual information packed into them to be completely intelligible.

Meanwhile, two great Jacobean tragedies were recently only a block apart in Boston's Theatre District. The Wilbur Theatre hosted the Royal National Theatre's touring production of what it modestly calls "The Hamlet of a Lifetime," directed by John Caird and starring Simon Russell Beale (closed April 29). On the other side of the Wang Center, in the Tremont Theatre, Pet Brick Productions offered Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (closed April 29), directed by the company's co-founder Patrick Wang, and starring Australian actor Mark Saturno.

StageSource, Boston's Alliance of Theatre Artists and Producers, has named local producer and playwright Kate Snodgrass as the recipient of its 2001 Theatre Hero Award. Snodgrass is the co-founder and artistic director of the Elliot Norton Award-winning Boston Theater Marathon and producing director of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott's Boston Playwrights' Theatre. The award presentation will take place on June 11 at The Party, StageSource's annual celebration of the Boston Theatre Community, in the ballroom of the Radisson Hotel.

David Frieze

CHICAGO

Starting July 1, Susan V. Booth becomes the Alliance Theatre's first female artistic director, tackling one of the 10 largest theatres in America with a budget of over $10 million. Succeeding the Alliances' first and only African-American director Kenny Leon, Booth also concurs "diversity is a given in my programming" as she inherits Leon's 2001-2002 season, including The Wiz, which Leon will direct, and the Southeastern premiere of Proof, which Booth will process. As the developer of new plays at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Booth is likewise expected to magnetize new talents to Atlanta to make splashy political statements, as did Rebecca Gilman at the Goodman.

"I like wrestling with something thorny; I like to argue and be contentious," Booth tells Back Stage, "Theatre should be entertaining, and it should make us squirm sometimes if we're doing it right."

Definitely eliciting squirms was the regional premiere of the Alliance's production of Spinning Into Butter (closed April 29), though the red heat of Rebecca Gilman's exposé of racism paled in Booth's naturalistic interpretation. Coming off more of a sad scold than a tragic figure was Christina Roush as the cover racist, counterbalanced by the palpable physical threat of Rey Lucas as an enraged man of color.

Meanwhile, the Alliance's Hertz Stage hosted fire-breathing Baptists in David Rambo's God's Man in Texas (through May 27), highlighted by director Eddie Levi Lee letting rip the orations of Tony Monckus as a spiritual con man supreme, offset by young lion Mark Kincaid and hilarious character actor Larry Larson.

Enjoying an Atlanta revival was Tennessee Williams, whose eternal A Streetcar Named Desire compelled riveting work from Jessica Phelps West and Shannon Malone in an inspired environmental staging by August Staub at Theatre in the Square (closed April 29). A whole new script materialized in Push Push Theatre's The Glass Menagerie via an all-black cast, exploring stylized brilliance from Carol-Mitchell Leon as Amanda contrasted by fierce tenderness and sad explosiveness from Sahr Ngaujah as her noisy martyr son Tom, under Tim Habeger's direction (closed April 22).

Dave Hayward

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