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L.A. Theatre Works to open 'Top Secret' in New York and 'RFK' at the Skirball Cultural Center

March 9, 2010 | 10:37 am


L.A. Theatre Works is known for recording the classics -- and plays it thinks will become classics -- in live radio broadcast-style performances that often feature Broadway and Hollywood stars.

This month, the company will present two productions that show off a different side of its repertoire -- the historical docudrama.

"Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons will open Tuesday at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop. The play, which premiered at Theatre Works in 1991, examines what went on behind the scenes on a day in 1971 when Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham had to decide whether to print secret government documents about the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

"RFK: The Journey to Justice," a Theatre Works commission, will run March 17-21 at the company's home stage, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Authors Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin follow Robert F. Kennedy's political and personal transformation as he immersed himself in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Theatre Works ventured into the realms of politics and history soon after it began recording plays for broadcast in the 1980s, says producing director Susan Albert Loewenberg. Among its first offerings were two dramas inspired by the anti-Communist pursuits of the House Un-American Activities Committee: Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Eric Bentley's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." (The casts included Edward Asner, Bonnie Bedelia, Richard Dreyfuss, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach and James Whitmore.)

The company since has presented original docudramas about the Scopes Monkey Trial, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller.

Starting in 2005, Theatre Works sent productions on tour to universities and arts centers around the country, presenting them in radio show-style format--actors at microphones accompanied by sound effects--but with more elaborate staging. Among the traveling programs was "Top Secret," which Loewenberg originally put on during the Persian Gulf War when, she says, the question of national security versus the public's right to know took on new significance.

The play has been revised by Cowan, currently a USC professor and director of the school's Center on Communication Leadership. ( Aarons, a prize-winning journalist, died in 2004.) The tour led to the New York engagement, which runs through March 28. The show is a co-production with New York Theatre Workshop and Affinity Collaborative Theater.

Two years ago, several universities that regularly host Theatre Works' plays gave the company money to create a docudrama. Horwitz and Estrin used a mix of narrative and verbatim text -- based on what Loewenberg calls "daunting amounts of research" -- to depict the last eight years of Robert Kennedy's life as he helped his brother John reach the White House in 1960 and then became an increasingly passionate advocate of civil rights.

"RFK" debuted at the University of Notre Dame in January and toured before coming to L.A. The Skirball production stars Henry Clarke as Robert Kennedy, Philip Casnoff as John Kennedy and Kevin Daniels as Martin Luther King Jr.
"We hope these shows will help people learn what actually happened -- or fill in the blanks about things we know now but didn't know then," says actor John Rubinstein, who is directing both "Top Secret" and "RFK." "Most important, we hope people leave talking about the bigger issues like freedom of speech but also about what great stories these are."

--Karen Wada

Photo: Henry Clarke as Robert F. Kennedy and cast of "RFK: The Journey to Justice" at the University of Notre Dame. Credit: University of Notre Dame's DeBartolo Performing Arts Center