Double Billing

Who says Phoenix isn't a theater town? For the past five years, a real live Broadway legend has walked among us--not that most people here probably care. In Phoenix, you're more likely to be handed celebrity status for shooting a cop than for copping a Tony nomination or winning an Obie.

If theater director Marshall W. Mason works in a city where most people don't know what an Obie is, he doesn't care. He's come here to teach acting and directing at ASU, where he's a member of the theater-arts faculty, not to be fawned over for past accomplishments. Although it might be nice if someone knew who he was.

"I reviewed a play once," he says, referring to his former post as a local theater critic. "And this woman sent me a letter that said, 'I read your awful review, and I'd like to know exactly who you think you are.'

"I wrote her back, telling her exactly who I am and what I have accomplished. But I never sent it. I figured there was no point, she still wouldn't have heard of me."

Misery loves company, and Mason has recently been joined by another theater legend, his friend and colleague Lanford Wilson. But Wilson--who counts among his awards a couple of New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards and a Pulitzer--didn't come to Phoenix to soothe Mason's ego. He's here for the first-ever reading of his newest play, Los Alamos, at ASU. Mason will direct the production.

In 1969, Mason and Wilson co-founded the famed Circle Repertory Company, the country's longest-running company of professional actors and playwrights. Theirs is undoubtedly the most enduring and productive creative alliance in American theater history: They've collaborated on 52 productions, including The Hot L Baltimore, The Mound Builders, Talley's Folly and Redwood Curtain.

Circle Rep went on to become famous as the country's foremost developer of new work for the stage. Mason served as the company's artistic director for 18 years, resigning in 1987 to work on his own projects. He eventually landed at ASU, and has lately turned up as director of local Equity productions, most notably a stunning revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night for Arizona Theatre Company.

Wilson's distinguished career has continued to flourish; last month, his Book of Days was awarded the American Theatre Critics Association Top New Play award.

Neither is directly responsible for the Lanford Wilson festival that has paced the boards at ASU all season, offering better-than-average student productions of Lemon Sky and Balm in Gilead. Daniel Irvine, another ASU theater-arts faculty member, who worked with Mason and Wilson for many years at Circle Rep, organized the unofficial tribute, which will be capped by the Los Alamos reading.

"Danny wanted to do something to celebrate that I was working here," Mason says, "and he asked about a new play from Lanford. I know Lanford hates commissions, so I called him and said, "What about Trinity? That's about half written, we could do that."

The play, which has undergone several name changes, was originally scheduled for a full production on ASU's main stage next fall. But Trinity, now called Los Alamos, has since been optioned by Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan, where it will receive its first full-scale production next year under the title The Rain Dance. Mason will direct another new Wilson piece for ASU in November instead.

Both author and director are being deliberately vague about specifics of the play, an unnerving prerogative of any legend. The story reportedly concerns the moral predicaments of the scientists who created America's first atomic bomb, though that may change by opening night.

In the meantime, their schedules, according to ASU's media flack, are too crowded to accommodate an interview over lunch. They only have time to hunker down in the lobby of the university's crumbling Lyceum Theatre, where Mason, ever the director, frequently guides Wilson back to the subject at hand when he wanders off on a tangent.

That's too bad. Full of Patricia Wettig and John Simon and Frank Rich, and peppered with caustic comments about Donna McKechnie's singing voice ("not her biggest talent") and Miss Saigon ("At least one had the helicopter to look forward to"), Wilson's tangential stories are much more interesting than answers to my dry questions about historic theater collaborations. Even a simple question about casting leads to one of these tangential chat fests, peppered with stellar names. "Did we have Calista Flockhart in that show?" Mason asks Wilson, who stops a story later with the aside, "You know, we had Christopher Reeve in the lead, but then he had his accident, and we had to recast."

Mason and Wilson have also helped create the careers of William Hurt, John Malkovich, Alec Baldwin, Kathy Bates and Demi Moore, all of them Circle Rep players. After guiding such luminaries, the benefits of working with young, unformed talents at a local university can't be exciting.

So why is Marshall Mason at ASU?
His answers sound more like careful sound bites from a practiced press agent.

"Well, you'd think I hate it, because it's young people just starting out," Mason says. "But New York is no longer a place to begin something. There's nothing there in terms of development. Working here, there's a constant flow of new talent. It's really reminiscent of the old days at Circle Rep, where we had a company of young actors to choose from and work with. I could work with them for years and years, they were all right there in New York."

"Well," Wilson cuts in, "they were also older and more . . ."
"Accomplished," Mason finishes. "But I've worked with some real talent here. My only complaint is that they get good, then they graduate, and they're gone, off to L.A. or New York to seek fame. And I have to start all over again with a new batch."

Several of the latest "batch" were selected long-distance for roles in Los Alamos. Mason sent students' head shots via e-mail to Wilson in New York, where he also watched videotaped auditions mailed to him by Mason. "The whole play was done by computer," cracks Wilson.

Neither is shy about embracing technology, and they'll even admit to owning a piece of theater history. But call them "legends" to their face, and both Mason and Wilson burst out laughing.

"I never think about that," they say in unison.
"We couldn't possibly," Wilson says.
"If we did," Mason says, "we'd never get any work done. We'd just sit around being legendary."

The staged reading of Los Alamos will be presented through Sunday, May 2, at Arizona State University's Lyceum Theatre in Tempe.


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