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Missed opportunities

Watching major plays fall through the cracks



Think new. Atlanta's playhouses and performing troupes are selecting and an- nouncing their new productions for the 2002-2003 season, making the time ripe for debuting a new, biweekly column devoted to the city's theater scene.

Novelty is a watchword for the upcoming season, and Atlanta theaters aren't just paying lip service to the notion of staging and workshopping never-before-produced plays. Breaking fresh ground isn't just a priority for artistic directors such as Susan V. Booth of the Alliance Theatre, Wier Harman of Actor's Express and Sean Daniels of Dad's Garage. I'll bet that if you asked everyone who runs a theater what they'd do with carte blanche, they'd express a desire to stage more premieres.

This month original scripts bloom alongside the spring flowers. Theatre in the Square has brought back its Percolating Playwriting series, while Horizon Theatre's New South for the New Century festival begins May 31. Not to mention the annual local playwriting contests by such groups as Essential Theatre and Onstage Atlanta. Staging premieres has become very much an Atlanta thing to do.

A minor but nagging downside accompanies all this emphasis on debuts. Theaters must strike a balance between exciting but untested work and the more commercial scripts that keep the house open. Staging Beth Henley's oft-produced Southern-chick comedy Crimes of the Heart helps the Alliance justify debuting something like Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee's The Bench in the upcoming season.

A bigger concern is that a surprising quantity of significant new plays, or new plays by significant writers, never make it to Atlanta, and it's a real mystery why some are MIA.

Why has there been no major production in the past decade of a work by Vaclav Havel, who wrote brilliant plays like the office satire The Memorandum, and then became president of the Czech Republic? Why hasn't anyone found a pretext to stage the quirky one-act Slavs, Tony Kushner's follow-up to Angels in America? The Young Man from Atlanta, by the late, beloved Horton Foote, would seem a shoo-in based on its title alone.

The question becomes even more pressing when famous plays get revived while new ones by the same authors gather dust. The improv theater Whole World has returned to staging plays with David Mamet's 1984 drama Glengarry Glen Ross.

Yet no Atlanta theater has produced Mamet's last major work, The Cryptogram. The Cryptogram is reputedly more of a head-scratcher than a crowd-pleaser and would probably match poorly with Whole World's loyal audience. But given Mamet's omnipresence on stage and screen, and how The Cryptogram's roles include a woman and young boy, one misses the chance to see the writer make a change of pace.

Or consider 7 Stages' upcoming staging of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee's first Pulitzer Prize winner. The play promises to show 7 Stages at the height of its powers, with the renowned Joseph Chaikin directing a cast that includes Del Hamilton, Carolyn Cook and Carol Mitchell-Leon. Balance, however, is about 35 years old, and Atlanta theater has yet to see Albee's third Pulitzer winner, Three Tall Women.

When the city's major theaters pass on major new works, that gives the city's younger, smaller theaters the chance to swoop in and snap them up, as when Rogue Planet staged Patrick Marber's Closer last fall, or when Essential Theatre presented worthy works by Christopher Durang and Lanford Wilson last January.

Atlanta theaters and playgoers seem intimidated by some of the British wits, so I have few hopes that Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love will make it to an Atlanta stage. But I hold out hopes for Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, author of the quintessential farce Noises Off and the brilliant recent novel Headlong. The three-character drama recounts a meeting of the minds -- physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and the latter's wife Margrethe -- and won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play. Any takers?

Many factors figure into how theaters come up with their seasons, from the price tags of the productions to personal passions: Obviously 7 Stages should do A Definite Balance if it's the show they feel most strongly about. But when local companies do empty work, like the shows of the Abridged Shakespeare Company, the big absences are keenly felt. Atlanta theater is strong and vital enough to do practically anything -- but would that they could do everything.

Entrances: Thomas Pechar formerly of Baltimore's Center Stage, the Seattle Children's Theatre, and Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., replaces Gus Stuhlreyer as the Alliance Theatre's managing director beginning in June.

Exits: New Jomandi Productions continues to struggle financially as it cancels its production of Suzan-Lori Parks' In the Blood and releases interim artistic director Andrea Frye. ... Atlanta actor and musician Jeff "The Rev." Mosier has been replaced by Brian Gunter of upstate New York in the Alliance Theatre's musical Woody Guthrie's American Song. ... Square Globe Theater has decided not to renew the lease on Marietta's Cherokee Street and is seeking a new venue.

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