A playwright hits big time

November 22, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

For some people, fame arrives like a bolt of lightning -- swift, sudden and unexpected. For others, like playwright Jon Klein, it sneaks up, winding around and teasing a little before it strikes.

Never heard of Jon Klein? Well, that sort of proves it -- though lately he's becoming a bit better known.

Klein is the author of "T Bone N Weasel," a 1986 script that's had more than 50 productions across the country, not to mention having been made into a cable TV movie that was broadcast on Turner Network Television earlier this month. The play's latest regional theater incarnation opens at Center Stage on Wednesday.

The picaresque account of two ex-cons traveling through South Carolina, "T Bone N Weasel" is by far the most successful of Klein's 11 produced scripts. "It's been a surprise," the 38-year-old playwright admitted from his home in Seattle.

He believes one reason for the play's success is that the two protagonists are "social outcasts," a category he feels most people identify with at some point in their lives.

"I wrote this during the Reagan years, and I was very affected by what I felt about his attitude toward certain segments of society that he felt didn't exist," Klein says. "South Carolina came to mind because it's one of the places where there's a very visible difference between the very rich and the very poor." The result is a script that he hopes "gives a voice to some of the invisible segments of society."

In more practical terms, Klein suspects another reason for the play's popularity is that "it's cheap -- three actors, whatever set you feel like having." That doesn't mean minimal characters or locations, however. To the contrary, the dramatis personae number 11: T Bone, Weasel and nine others -- the latter all played by a single actor. And the action is spread across more than two dozen scenes in settings that include a farm, beach, construction site, jail and the open road, to name a few.

This might sound tricky to stage, and Klein doesn't make it easier by omitting stage directions from the script. However, he is convinced this freedom enhances the appeal for creative directors. This is confirmed by the director of Center Stage's production, Jackson Phippin, who says he admires the playwright's "innate trust that the script was good enough that the artists would find out what they needed."

An offer of a lifetime

Though Phippin hasn't directed any of Klein's other plays, he and the playwright became acquainted at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah in the mid-1980s. Coincidentally, that was the same time "T Bone N Weasel" was being courted by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, which wanted to mount its professional debut.

The playwright turned down this offer, even though he realized that "if that production had been successful, it would have made me a household name." His reluctance arose from his experience a few years earlier with his first play, "Losing It," which met a LTC swift demise in New York after negative reviews. Instead of taking that risk again, he chose to launch "T Bone" on the type of meandering journey that has characterized much of his own peripatetic life.

One of the most unexpected adventures in that journey came when TNT optioned the script. Klein was a playwright-in-residence at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre at the time. An actor in the Alliance's production of Klein's epic history play, "Southern Cross," also happened to work for the Atlanta-based TNT, and he showed "T Bone N Weasel" to the network.

"They decided to option it, and they also decided to give me a shot at writing the screenplay," Klein says. "They liked it very much and stuck with me."

Klein says he's pleased with the movie. One element that especially pleased him was the casting of the two stars, Gregory Hines and Christopher Lloyd, who, he admits, "were far beyond my expectations."

He's also grateful for the amount of input he had. "I got to rehearse with Greg Hines and Chris Lloyd and the director [Lewis Teague] for three or four days before they started filming. Greg Hines told me I'm the very first writer he's ever met for any of his films, so it shows you how the writer usually gets treated," he says. This may partly explain his chief reservation about the film: "I wish that more of the script was intact."

With this in mind, it's not surprising that Klein says, "I consider myself primarily a stage writer." After all, theater was his first love -- a love that surfaced when he was growing up in Louisville, Ky. As he related in the newsletter for the 1990 production of his semi-autobiographical play "Four Our Fathers" at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, he first realized he had a flair for drama in high school English when he was asked to read the part of Torvald in Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

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