THE theater is small and intimate, the audience made up of mostly inner-city youngsters from eight to 15 years old. The tension is tangible as as they watch Henry Meckler, after much ``should-I-or-shouldn't-I'' deliberation, raise the small vial to his lips and drain its contents. Henry is the focus of a play about substance-abuse, ``Jekyll and Hyde,'' that's part of Theatreworks USA's Free Off Broadway Summer Theatre for family audiences at the Promenade Theatre here.
Theatreworks USA, now in its 29th season, is regarded by many as the country's premier theater for young people and families. The award-winning company has done more than 25,000 performances in front of more than 21 million people in 49 states. The audience adds up to 300,000 annually in New York City alone.
In addition, the organization always has seven or eight companies touring the United States. Its repertory now includes more than 60 original works - plays and musicals - by both established and new playwrights. Theatreworks has been responsible for helping launch the careers of director Jerry Zaks, actors F. Murray Abraham, Henry Winkler, Sherman Hemsley, and others. The company launched its free summer theater last year with an award-winning musical about Jackie Robinson, ``Play to Win.''
Like ``Jekyll and Hyde,'' most Theatreworks productions aren't just fun (although they are certainly that) but are also learning experiences, which run the gamut of biographical, social, and personal subjects.
In ``Jekyll and Hyde,'' Henry, a high school ``dweeb brain,'' becomes fascinated by the book ``Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.'' Ultimately Henry creates a substance in chemistry lab that changes him into a ``cool guy.'' The essence of the story is that Henry's desire to remain his ``new'' self causes him to need increasing quantities of the substance (which he calls ``more''), eventually wrecking his school and home relationships and dragging him into addiction. In the end, his parents and two best friends come to his rescue, in a scene with the moving song ``You're Not Alone.''
``Jekyll and Hyde,'' written by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, with music by Michael Skloff, is full of humor, astute true-to-life situations, snappy contemporary music, and a message that grabs but doesn't bludgeon.
That's the way Theatreworks artistic director Jay Harnick wants to keep his productions. Even with so many young people's issues as possible subjects, both he and managing director Charles Hull want to make sure the plays don't come across as ``preachy.''
In a phone interview, Mr. Harnick remarked, ``We discovered early on - and it doesn't take any great brilliance to figure it out - that if you do a play that deals with [a topical] subject, you're so much better off if the audience doesn't know it - if they just come in for an entertainment, and they discover it themselves.''
Readers Digest magazine commissioned Theatreworks USA to produce three issue-oriented plays, the first being ``Jekyll and Hyde.'' The second, based on the book ``Harriet the Spy,'' deals with parent-child relationships; the third, which they're currently working on, is about illiteracy.
When it came time to premi`ere ``Jekyll and Hyde,'' the Theatreworks USA board suggested the company contact the White House to see if Barbara Bush would endorse the play. The White House agreed, provided a line would appear on the program referring to the dangers of drug abuse. This was troubling to Harnick, who believes ``a play on this subject ... should not be perceived as lecturing or harrying or didacticism.'' But, he added, ``their heart was in the right place.''
Lee Salk, professor of psychology, psychiatry, and pediatrics at Cornell University, commented, ```Jekyll and Hyde' approached the drug issue for young people more effectively than anything that I have seen.'' He added that it is ``a riveting work, a creative means of changing attitudes.''
The bottom line, however, is whether the play gets through to audiences. At the 11 a.m. performance I attended, all but the most sleepy-headed were actively involved with the action on stage, laughing or alternatively looking serious in the right places and hiding behind their programs when something really hit home. A teenage boy behind me said to his friend at the close of the play, ``Boy, I was really surprised - I didn't expect it to be that good!''
Why do the actors work in Theatreworks productions when there's a whole world of ``grown-up'' drama out there to be conquered?
Says Harnick, ``If they could get something on Broadway, they'd do that, and they do do that. F. Murray Abraham did about four different shows for us, and in between his more prestigious and higher-paying engagements he'd come back to us, because he felt that it was a job that he could respect.''
In ``Jekyll and Hyde,'' actor Fredrick Einhorn pulls off the nearly impossible, moving with apparent effortlessness from one character to another. He got the most laughs, of course, with his swaggering attitude as the bully Vernicker. But, he says, ``kids are hard. ... You can do just so many funny faces and pratfalls, and then they get tired of it. They're looking for something more... .''
And with Theatreworks, they're evidently getting itchy. An inner-city schoolteacher from Newark told Harnick there were two things in ``Jekyll and Hyde'' that she felt were very important: the dinner scene, where the whole family sits down to eat together, and the end of the play, where the child in trouble gets support from his friends and family.
``It was such a sobering, sad commentary,'' says Harnick. It's an indication there is still plenty of work out there for Theatreworks to do.''