Los Angeles earns reputation as a leader in staging new plays

FOR almost two decades, thanks in part to a countywide modification of actors' union regulations, Los Angeles has insisted it is the new-play capital of the country. Now, with a current crop of world premi`ere dramas, L.A. seems to have a legitimate claim to the name. While the city's larger theaters, the Ahmanson and Pantages, are boasting revivals -- William Inge's ``Picnic'' and that old chestnut ``Zorba,'' yes, starring Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova -- Los Angeles's smaller, not-for-profit theaters are bristling with new work, much of it with particular southern California relevance.

The Mark Taper Forum, sister theater to the Ahmanson, will conclude its 1985-86 season with the premi`ere of ``Green Card,'' a commissioned play by Mabou Mines director, JoAnne Akalaitis. The play, which began its previews yesterday, is a look at the burgeoning immigrant population of Los Angeles and its search for a new city politic.

Down at the La Jolla Playhouse, the first production of the theater's fourth season will be a new musical, ``Shout Up a Morning,'' based on the legend of John Henry and featuring a score by the late jazz musician Julian Adderley. Beginning previews on May 27, ``Shout Up a Morning'' is the first musical directed by Des McNuff, La Jolla artistic director, since his receiving the Tony award for directing the current Broadway musical ``Big River.''

Meanwhile, the first season of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), in its new multimillion-dollar, four-stage complex on Spring Street, has surged ahead with its seventh annual Festival of Premi`eres. Under Bill Bushnell's indefatigable artistic direction, LATC has generated both controversy and kudos this season -- as much for the theater's civic as its artistic daring. Operating with hefty subsidies from the city's Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and the California Arts Council, Bushnell and the LATC are attempting to foster inner-city renewal while bolstering the minority arts. A recent unexpected $2 million loan from CRA has sparked economic speculation as to the theater's financial footing, while the unorthodox season has occasioned artistic comment. An all-black version of Sam Shepard's ``Fool for Love,'' an Anglo-Hispanic production of Donald Freed's ``The Quartered Man,'' and David Henry Hwang's Asian-American double bill, ``As the Crow Flies'' and ``The Sound of a Voice,'' have generated mixed responses, as have two world premi`eres -- ``Diary of a Hunger Strike,'' a Northern Irish drama by Peter Sheridan, and ``Tumbleweed,'' the last in a six-play cycle by California playwright Adele Edling Shank. The latter work was this year's winner of the Dramatists Guild-CBS national playwriting competition.

But it is LATC's current production, the premi`ere of Luis Valdez's ``I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,'' that is eliciting the most enthusiasm.

``Badges'' is the first major play by the founder of the 21-year-old Obie Award-winning El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Worker's Theater) since ``Zoot Suit'' opened here eight years ago. It represents a major shift in Valdez's style and ideology. A far cry from the playwright/director's early years as an angry advocate of farm-labor unionism, ``Badges'' is a realistic comedy spoken almost entirely in English.

While the work attempts to confront such contemporary issues as the emergence of Los Angeles's immigrant middle-class minority, ``Badges'' also represents the author's stated efforts to reach the widest possible audience using a good number of ``theatrical tricks.''

Essentially a metaphor for the growing numbers of middle-class minorities now eager for full-fledged acceptance into the social mainstream, ``Badges'' chronicles the generational confrontation between a comfortably well-off Hispanic couple living in the city's Monterey Park -- a socio-economic leap from the city's barrios -- and their Harvard-educated son. Connie and Buddy Villa are a pair of Hollywood extras who have earned their suburban life, complete with jogging suits, color TV, and microwave oven, by performing as Latino bandidos and maids. (The play takes its title from a line in ``The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.'') Their son, Sonny, has returned home after quitting Harvard Law School to make his way as a Hollywood star, not a bit player. He has also brought along his Asian-American girlfriend.

While the plot paves the way for relevant discussions about discrimination, assimilation, and interminority relationships, not to mention the American position in Nicaragua, ``Badges'' lurches, not unexpectedly, into agitprop, but quite unexpectedly into theatrical gimmickry. The use of on-stage television sets, self-conscious lighting cues, two unnecessary dance numbers, and, most contrived, a sudden style change at the play's conclusion, not only undercuts the serious themes but also allows the author, who doubles as the play's director, to simply walk away from the conflicts initially raised. Valdez is simply being cute, not stylistically provocative, and the effect, despite the acting efforts of Robert Beltran, James Victor, Anne Betancourt, and Patti Yasutake, is irritating to one hoping for legitimate inquiry into contemporary social issues.

Across town at the CAST theater, the dreams and schemes of the city's WASP population come in for scrutiny in ``Back Home.'' Touted as the first ``Los Angeles musical,'' this peppy if minisized world premi`ere is yet another new play to spring from this small Equity-waiver theater.

The six cast members in ``Back Home,'' including the play's composer and lyricist, Kirby Tepper, have the well-scrubbed, hey-let's-put-on-a-show look appropriate to the musical's bouncy premise -- that Los Angeles may be different but it is also entertaining. With a plot that buoys the production beyond mere revue -- a Hollywood hopeful, Pat, meets a variety of L.A. types -- ``Back Home'' is further leavened by the singing talents of Patricia Briody, director Robert Schrock's well-paced direction, and the comic turns of the rest of the cast. Dee Dee Rescher is hilarious as the Beverly Hills matron boldly venturing east of Rodeo Drive. Cameron Smith is perfect as the fey, egocentric would-be actor. Tepper, whose clever lyrics are the real star of the show, is equally adept impersonating Judd Nelson.

Make no mistake, ``Back Home'' is not ground-breaking theater, just an entertaining, original musical that pokes delicious fun at all the right California stereotypes, including the most ironic one: that everyone in L.A. theater really wants to be a Hollywood star.

Both ``Badges'' and ``Back Home'' have been extended into June.

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