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Stage Preview: New Public Theater director wants to give audiences more bang for the buck

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Not even the bustle of Penn Avenue, just two floors below, disturbs the O'Reilly Theater's empty Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall. It has an odd calm, tinged with the sense of all that theatrical activity past and to come.

Enter Ted Pappas. The new artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater is an ebullient, energetic force. In a conversation about his first season, the two favorite words that pepper his talk are "fabulous" and "joy."

 
    'YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU'

Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

When: through Oct. 29 -- 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (except 7 p.m. Oct. 24); 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Oct. 14, 21, 26 and 28.

Tickets: $15-$42, students $10; 412-316-1600.

 
 

But Pappas starts the interview low-keyed. A longtime free-lance director and choreographer, he's adjusting to the new and greater demands of running a theater at the same time as he directs. The whirl of work was especially intense a couple of days ago, just before he would open his first season with tonight's initial preview performance of his own staging of "You Can't Take It With You," the 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy classic.

"They can't find me in here," he jokes, slipping into an armchair in a protected corner of the quiet room.

The quiet doesn't last. Rehearsal halls are always on the verge of theatrical life, and Pappas is his own accompanying band. As he discusses his plans and hopes, his broad smile gets broader, his excitement spills out, the music surges behind his voice. He wants to see as much fanfare as possible for "You Can't Take It With You," he says -- after all, it's his first show.

Actually, it's his eighth. Under his predecessor, Eddie Gilbert, Pappas had a regular Public gig as director of its one musical each year, from "Wings" (1994) through "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1998). But in 1999, Gilbert assigned him a nonmusical drama, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- partly, he later said, to demonstrate Pappas' all-round fitness for the head job. Then, in Gilbert's final season and the first in the O'Reilly, he gave Pappas a splashy musical again, "The Pirates of Penzance."

Splash -- Pappas likes that.

"It's important we open the season with a bang," he says, "with the play in great shape from the get-go, saying to the audience, 'this is the standard we'll meet for the rest of the year.' "

In planning his first season, "I always knew I wanted to open with an American comedy -- I want to hear laughter from the start. Lying on my sofa in New York reading 'You Can't Take It With You,' I was laughing out loud -- that clinched it for me. I like great plays. 'You Can't Take It With You' is a big play with a big cast, a comedy that requires a lot of energy and attention to detail, and it deserves to be seen in a no-holds-barred professional production."

But to the challenge of a great play -- even harder, perhaps, because it is so familiar from decades of community theater and high school exposure -- Pappas has added the challenge of running a $6 million company.

"You don't have the luxury of spending the morning at home, reading the play in bed," he says with a touch of rue. "You need to organize your life to give the play the time it requires," navigating meetings with staff and board, social responsibilities and fund raising, starting every day earlier and ending later, working through lunch, "always at everyone's beck and call. It'll control you unless you can control it. I don't think it'll all be clear to me until the final performance of the final play."

Characteristically, though, he says all this "has energized me." The pressure of other demands makes rehearsal time special. "I've been looking forward to putting the car in fourth and zooming down the highway -- this is my adventure."

Amid all this whirl, he enjoyed having Ethan McSweeney, director of the Public's second show, "Wit," here for auditions: "It was a comfort to find another director in the room." It reminded him he'll spend much of the time producing.

"It's important for me to produce these plays," he stresses, making himself actively available to guest directors and their actors and staffs. His taste as a producer is already evident in the season he's planned.

"There's an idea that a theater [like this] can afford only one big show a year, usually a Shakespeare. But I think we should be producing more big plays with a lot of actors."

Half the season's six shows count as "big": "You Can't Take It With You" with its 20 actors; "Romeo and Juliet," which Pappas will direct with a cast of 22 (you could do it with fewer, but Pappas laughs, "Not me!"); and "By Jeeves," the new Andrew Lloyd Webber-Alan Ayckbourn musical, small for a musical but big "by virtue of the orchestra, choreographer, sound designers -- big technically."

In the hopes that it will go from Pittsburgh to New York, "By Jeeves" will involve Broadway-ready cast and designers. Ayckbourn, who will himself direct, "isn't a person who likes to repeat himself," Pappas says, "so expect some exciting ideas." He may even turn the O'Reilly thrust stage into a proscenium.

That meets another Pappas goal: "I want to celebrate the full possibilities of the O'Reilly. I want to use it with originality, from very stark to very ornate."

The season's rhythm will help. The big "You Can't Take It With You" is followed by the intimate "Wit"; the complex "By Jeeves" by "Tea"; the sprawling "Romeo and Juliet" by the claustrophobic "Copenhagen."

And there's a big seventh show, a musical revue offered as a holiday-time extra, "A Grand Night for Singing." Pappas wants plenty of extras in the season. He's already planned several, including a one-on-one on-stage conversation between him and Anne Kaufman Schneider, George S. Kaufman's smart, opinionated daughter, set for 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 12. Then there will be two cabaret evenings, Oct. 27 and 28, drawing on the considerable star power of the "You Can't Take It With You" cast.

Basically, though, Pappas insists, "the season is about great actors and directors. I set out to attract great directors who would attract great actors, and it's already working." As proof, he cites Lisa Harrow, who will play the daunting central role of a cancer-stricken professor in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Wit."

"She's one of the English-speaking world's great actresses," an English actress who once played opposite Peter O'Toole in "Man and Superman." Harrow played in "Wit" in the later stages of the original New York production. "She wanted to revisit the play, to rehearse it afresh in another production, and she wanted to work with Ethan [McSweeney]."

McSweeney is a hot young director who just opened a starry revival of "The Best Man" on Broadway. Among his other director stars, Pappas lists Pamela Berlin ("Tea"), Debbie Dickinson ("Grand Night for Singing") and, of course, Ayckbourn.

An artistic director hires directors. But a director hires actors. When Pappas was selected for the Public Theater job, Michael Price, longtime executive producer at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, said, "The most important thing is casting, and Ted casts impeccably."

In prospect, "You Can't Take It With You" is pretty impressive evidence of that, with a cast led by Tom Atkins and Mark Jacoby. Atkins, a Pittsburgh favorite, has the juicy role of Grandpa Vanderhof. But Jacoby, a Broadway star ("Nine," "Sweet Charity," "Phantom of the Opera," "Ragtime"), has the smaller role of Mr. Kirby.

"In my point of view," Pappas says, "the play is very much the conflict between the philosophies of Grandpa and Mr. Kirby. So Mr. Kirby needs an actor of enormous charisma who can stand center stage and deliver."

The rest of the cast is just as strong, with national and local actors judiciously mixed. Pappas is proud that of the 20, 11 are Pittsburghers and two others (Marilyn Pasekoff and Ron Wisniski) are returning native Pittsburghers. "Our theater will be at its best when the Pittsburgh acting pool is mixed in with actors from Broadway, London, Toronto and elsewhere," he says.

Pappas has worked with most of the cast before, but not with Atkins: "But I'm a fan of his. I've seen him for years. He has a combination of humor and crustiness -- so much joy and very funny."

Pappas seems pretty happy himself. "My relations with the Cultural Trust [the Public's landlord] have been very cordial. I'm extremely grateful for the artistic environment that's been created in the city." And he's started getting out to other theaters: "My hobby is going to the theater -- not as an employer but as an audience member. It's extremely relaxing to see everybody else do the work!

"I'm buoyed by watching audiences, and I adore actors -- they're magic to me."



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