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This Year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

1998 was a major milestone for theater in Los Angeles as that year two plays which received their world premieres here in Southern California, went on to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Both plays were staged by South Coast Repertory, which since then has continued its relationship with top tier American dramatists. Once again, when the 2005 Pulitzers were announced earlier this month, SCR found itself with a short-listed play: Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, a whimsical piece that ran in Costa Mesa in January and February--but won't make it to New York until next season.

The other play shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize this year is a one-man show written by Will Eno titled Thom Pain (based on nothing). Thom Paine, like The Clean House, is the work of a young writer, and it displays a fresh, youthful voice--but it also shows a deep knowledge of theatrical tradition. The catch phrase that's stuck to Thom Pain is that it's &quotSamuel; Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." This, like all labels, is not quite accurate--but Thom Paine is both funny and accessible, at the same time that it's complex, innovative and, yes, existential.

Interestingly, Thom Paine is co-produced by the Naked Angels Theater Company, a troupe based in New York but that recently has made it part of its mission to stage works here in Los Angeles. There are plans to bring Thom Paine to California this fall, which is great news because it's a show that could bring a whole new audience to the theater.

The other good sign for Los Angeles theater indicated by this year's Pulitzers is that on the day the prizes were announced, the play that was awarded the 2005 Prize for Drama, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt was actually playing here at the Pasadena Playhouse.

One would have hoped that this honor, along with the fact that this local production opened before Doubt even made it to Broadway, would have turned this Pasadena staging into a major event--but a week later the production closed. Usually a Pasadena Playhouse production closing is no reason to be sad; but this version--while not perfect--was an interesting and worthy alternative to the production of Doubt currently running on Broadway.

Shanley's play takes place in 1964 and centers on the hint of impropriety surrounding the relationship between a priest and the one black student in the parish school. The principal, Sister Aloysius, stands at the center of the conflict as she must decide how to deal with the situation in a era long before current scandals brought this problem out into the light.

Here at the Pasadena Playhouse, Sister Aloysius was played by Linda Hunt, the diminutive actress who is best known for her Oscar-winning performance in the film The Year of Living Dangerously. Her take on the role of Sister Aloysius received mixed reviews by critics, but this seemed unfair as Hunt's performance was very much in line with the director's vision of the piece.

In Pasadena, director Claudia Weill decided to focus on the mechanics of the plot, making it more a whodunit rather than a meditation on the decay of the Catholic Church. Therefore Ms. Hunt's performance was rightly different from role's originator, Cherry Jones, who brought out the more human side of the character.

Cherry Jones is now playing Sister Aloysius again in the Broadway version of Doubt--and its proving such a success, that it's possible that it could tour and come to Los Angeles, giving Southern California theater-goers a unique chance to see two first-class productions of one of America's best new plays. But even if the New York production of Doubt does come here, it doesn't diminish the fact that the playwright trusted the Pasadena Playhouse to stage his work before it went to Broadway. This year's Pulitzers--and Doubt in particular--prove beyond a certainty that more and more major playwrights see Southern California as a viable place to bring new dramatic work.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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