San Diego - one of America's hot theater towns

If the recent Los Angeles Festival illustrated anything about art in the United States, it is that exceptional, even ground-breaking, theater can come to the West Coast. Now, some 130 miles to the south, another California city is proving that exciting new theater can come from the West Coast. San Diego, the heretofore sleepy enclave of eucalyptus trees and retired Navy personnel, has become one of the hottest theater towns in the United States. And while the city does not possess the sheer numbers of stages that Los Angeles does, San Diego is making up in artistic quality what it lacks in quantity.

This season, San Diego's three major theaters - the Old Globe Theater, San Diego Repertory Theater, and the La Jolla Playhouse - will send to New York at least five new plays that originated or were honed here. It is a track record that few resident theaters can match.

Indeed, what began in 1985 with the successful Broadway transfer of ``Big River'' - the La Jolla Playhouse hit that won seven Tony Awards, including best musical - has become a full-fledged torrent. Already, San Diego Rep's ``Holy Ghosts,'' a new drama by Romulus Linney, opened to good reviews Off Broadway. And on Nov. 5, the curtain will rise on one of the most anticipated Broadway openings of the year, ``Into the Woods,'' the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical that had its world premi`ere at the Old Globe last spring. Also forthcoming are Off Broadway debuts of ``Another Antigone'' - A.R. Gurney's latest bittersweet comedy - and ``Emily,'' a new play by writer Stephen Metcalfe. Both plays originated at the Old Globe.

Meanwhile, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff is sending along what may be the most significant Broadway play, ``A Walk in the Woods,'' the acclaimed d'etente drama by Lee Blessing that Mr. McAnuff also directed at Yale Repertory Theatre.

If that were not enough, Neil Simon startled Broadway when he announced that ``A Foggy Day,'' his new musical using songs by George and Ira Gershwin, would have its premi`ere (sometime after next spring) at the Old Globe.

Why has San Diego become the tryout town of choice?

The answer has as much to do with the nature of American regional theater as it does with the city itself. Like all not-for-profit stages, San Diego's theatrical triptych offers two distinct advantages: built-in subscriber audiences and greatly reduced production costs. In addition, the city's location ensures insularity from New York's commercial and critical pressures, while ensuring access to Los Angeles's peerless talent pool.

There is also the proximity to nearby Orange County, an affluent bedroom community that is undergoing something of a performing-arts renaissance. The opening last year of the glittery, $70 million Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, coupled with the reputation of the 23-year-old South Coast Repertory theater next door, has created a new critical mass of theaters in southern California, of which San Diego's are at the center.

What are the theaters doing for an encore? If the bill of fare this season looks a little prosaic - a blend of classical, revived, and new work that is not quite the stuff of Broadway - it remains the stock in trade of these regional theaters.

Last summer the La Jolla Playhouse scored a direct hit with a production of ``The Tempest,'' directed by Robert Woodruff, which placed Shakespeare wholly in the service of the director. Or rather misservice. For what begins with a clever m'elange of staging techniques - during the storm scene, sailors wear foul weather gear emblazoned with H-O-P-E while Ariel douses them with buckets of water - dissolves into willful, and arbitrary, directorial whimsy.

Mr. Woodruff has aped many of the high-tech methods (microphones, rock music, quick-cut visuals) that director Peter Sellars used (to far better effect) in his production of ``Ajax'' here last season. And some concepts take flight. Casting deaf actor Howie Seago as Caliban imbues that grotesque role with some humanity. Prospero (C'astulo Guerra) and Ariel (Regina Taylor) have a rapport that crackles with more than the usual master-servant exchange. But much remains awry, and the result is a production that doesn't so much illuminate Shakespeare's poetic text as parody it.

Far more traditional, and in keeping with the more staid Old Globe, was Stan Wojewodski Jr.'s direction of Georges Feydeau's ``There's One in Every Marriage.'' It's the Globe's best production of the year, and Mr. Wojewodski wound the classic farce so tightly (so right for the manic Feydeau) that this 19th-century Parisian concoction of mistaken identity, jealousy, and in flagrante delicto flew across the plush, bordello-like set as if fired from a cannon. Although the ambitious and seducible women (Deborah May as Lucienne and Carolyn McCormick as Ulla) are statuesque and beautiful, it is the men - George Deloy as the rogue Roubillon and James Whittle as his manservant Jerome - that most captivate.

South Coast Repertory has started its season (which will premier another new play by Craig Lucas in January) with a fine if unexceptional ``Misalliance.'' Directed by South Coast artistic director Martin Benson, Shaw's comedy of inter-generational morals and manners plays as a combination of ``The Importance of Being Ernest'' and ``Major Barbara.'' Lacking the outright silliness of the former and the ontological urgency of the latter, this ``Misalliance'' remains a clever Shavian noodling of a turn-of-the-century generation gap.

In Ralph Funicello's airy solarium, the Tarleton and Summerhay broods flutter about like a flock of overbred birds pecking at each other and such topics as destiny, women's rights, and marital fidelity. Lynnda Ferguson is a Gloria Steinem-like Lina Szczepanowska, the ingenuous Polish feminist.

But it is I.M. Hobson as the dourly mischievous patriarch, John Tarleton, who really rules this production. He's a Falstaffian Ralph Kramden who thunders, ``Enjoy life, read Ibsen.''

At the South Coast Repertory through Oct. 18.

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