A peek at two West Coast stage works

I hadn't visited the Mark Taper Forum for several years when I recently caught John Malkovich's magnum-force performance in a world premi`ere that is part of the Taper's 20th anniversary season. It was good to find things as lively as I remembered in this innovative theater. The same weekend I took the hour's drive to Costa Mesa to see the slightly senior (23-year-old), though less widely known, South Coast Repertory. For some benighted reason I had never done so before. Now I got a hint of what I had been missing in the glossy, imaginative staging of another world premi`ere, the first musical play inaugurated by SCR.

Both productions - the Taper's ``Burn This,'' by Lanford Wilson, and SCR's ``Three Postcards,'' by Craig Lucas and Craig Carnelia - seemed well beyond tryout condition. But they both happen to be reversing the usual course for their authors, accustomed to coming to the Taper and SCR after New York. The present plays will soon close here (Feb. 15 at the Taper, Feb. 8 at SCR) and then reopen in New York, where they will presumably be in final shape for review.

A dropper-in like me can at least report an excitement over this further evidence that America's transcontinental rialto is a two-way street. Four previous plays by Lanford Wilson, directed by Marshall W. Mason, played the Taper following New York openings. Mr. Mason has also directed ``Burn This,'' whose title refers in part to the notion that a writer should write so unsparingly that he wants to write ``burn this'' at the bottom of each page.

Possibly Mr. Wilson was challenging himself in this way. Certainly much of the script's language is for burning, especially in the mouth of the uncut-diamond-in-the-very-very-rough played by Mr. Malkovich.

It seems like overkill when this character bursts into the bleakly cozy circle of dancer, filmwriter, and homosexual advertising man centered in a lower Manhattan loft. But he offers a stark contrast to the wry wit and contemporary rhythms in the expertly delivered dialogue of characters who know they are competent beyond the level of the work they do. The filmwriter babbles about bringing human dignity to the screen, not to excess, of course. The intruder is all excess, and at times he makes for trenchant commentary on both effete and establishment aspects of the current scene.

But despite the nowness of the packaging, there is something conventionally sentimental in the pattern. Imagine those old movies in which the roughneck sweeps the sensitive woman off her feet - redone without benefit of the Hays office censors.

Another kind of nowness gleams around the South Coast Repertory's ``Three Postcards.'' But the content again is not especially new-fashioned sentiment.

This is the third play at SCR by Mr. Lucas, a relative newcomer to playwriting by way of Boston University and several years in Broadway chorus lines. His ``Blue Window'' went on to become an ``American Playhouse'' TV production, scheduled for airing later this year.

The director of that show, Norman Rene, has also directed ``Three Postcards,'' which fluidly accommodates music and lyrics by Mr. Carnelia. On a polished, steeply raked stage sit a restaurant table and an elevated grand piano, which later rotates on its pedestal. The pianist begins to whistle. The lone waiter echoes him. It is a wistful appetizer to what turns out to be a wistful, though sometimes raucously comic, meal.

The diners are three women, old friends; the menu is yuppie gourmet; the topics are such things as whether to take a job in telephone sales. The table literally divides and joins together again as different characters come into focus, a familiar naughty story is retold, sad or pleasing news is shared, time manipulated so that years are encompassed before dessert.

In addition to the pleasures of the performances there is the fillip of having to catch on to what amount to fade-ins and fade-outs as unspoken thoughts are spoken or fantasies enacted. For instance, one of the women hilariously steps out of character to depict herself as a wanton temptress of - the pianist.

Surely this is a pre-feminist routine, and some of the dialogue risks the doldrums of what used to be called girl talk. But the stage tricks are fresh, and I was glad not to have missed Costa Mesa on this trip from the frozen East.

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor.

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