Center Stage's lineup offers a little bit of everything

April 19, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

A Russian classic, a 1920s American comedy, a Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical and the most recent play by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson will be part of Center Stage's 1994-1995 season, announced Monday.

But the really big news involves ongoing negotiations to bring in the latest work by "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner as well as Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith in her acclaimed "Fires in the Mirror." Including Mr. Kushner's new play, "Slavs! (Or Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)," and Ms. Smith's "Fires," a one-woman show about the 1991 riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, "is my ideal," said artistic director Irene Lewis.

Getting both works would be a coup for the theater, but Ms. Lewis acknowledged that both plays are still tentative. She expects the season to be finalized next month. Of the two, "Slavs!," which is composed partly of outtakes from the second half of Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic "Angels in America," looks the most likely. "I want a new play and right now 'Slavs!' is really at the top of my list," Ms. Lewis said.

Mr. Kushner, who spoke at a dinner for Center Stage donors last month, is a self-described fan of the theater. He would probably come to Baltimore to work on the play while it was here. "Slavs!" debuted at this year's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and was "the talk of the festival," according to Variety.

The primary sticking point with "Fires" is Ms. Smith's schedule. The actress/writer, described by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in American theater right now," has had two hit shows in New York. Her newest, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," transferred to Broadway on Sunday. She is also a professor at Stanford University.

"We're working on [Anna Deavere Smith] rather frantically," Ms. Lewis said.

Production dates have not been announced, but the season is expected to open with Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which would be produced in the 541-seat downstairs Pearlstone Theater, under Ms. Lewis' direction.

"Personally, I am interested in doing difficult plays for my own directing growth and interest. So with something like 'Cherry Orchard' -- Chekhov being one of the harder people to do -- I gravitated toward that quite easily," she said of the play, which was previously produced by the theater in 1976.

Continuing her emphasis on challenging scripts, Ms. Lewis also plans to direct the Brecht-Weill musical "Happy End," which she described as "a wonderful, also a difficult, piece" that she hopes to stage upstairs in the Head Theater.

Also on her directing schedule is George Kelly's 1924 comedy "The Show-Off," about a braggart who's a charmer.

The other offering that looks definite is August Wilson's "Two Trains Running." Set in the 1960s, the urban drama is the latest in the playwright's decade-by-decade chronicle of black life in 20th century America. Center Stage associate artist Marion Isaac McClinton, a friend of Mr. Wilson, is expected to direct.

To allow maximum flexibility, Ms. Lewis announced two other possibilities for the six-play season. She has wanted the theater to produce Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" for some time, starring associate artist Robert Dorfman. The other option is "Simply Heavenly," a 1957 musical by Langston Hughes and David Martin. Ms. Lewis called it "a beautiful piece [that] has some bite and a quaintly, sweetly innocent quality to it." But she feels the music needs to be reworked and may not be ready by next season.

Finalizing the lineup depends in part on the actors' payroll budget, which Ms. Lewis expects to be close to this year's $594,000 (out of a total operating budget of $4.6 million). The current season is shaping up as one of Center Stage's most successful. "Fences," "Das Barbecu" and "Othello" were three of the five best-selling shows in the theater's history, and "Othello" sold more tickets than any other production.

Season subscription tickets are currently on sale for $60 to $174; single tickets go on sale in the fall.

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