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IT WASN'T a year to break out the paper hats and pop champagne corks.
Some theaters did pretty well some of the time, but a few too many didn't live up to usual expectations, leaving caring theater-goers biting their nails.

The theater having the best season going for it probably was the Studio Arena. Plays by August Wilson, David Mamet and Christopher Durang make a big difference.

But we are not talking about 1989-90 seasons here. Rather, we are assessing play productions falling in the calendar year 1990. So in the case of the Studio Arena, for instance, we must take into account its dismal start this fall: a botched farce, a musical that isn't going anywhere, and a case of Christmas greed (another production of "A Christmas Carol" done in the spirit of profits).

Then there was Ujima Company, which seems to be temporarily low on gas. And the bright light of the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre dimmed as it stumbled over shows like "The Physicists" (but hold the death notices: Its smashing production of "The Dresser" that just recently closed after an extended run made up for everything).

For 10 years, theater in the city has been on an upward curve. Outstanding advances occurred. New, small theaters blossomed even as the main one, the Studio Arena, fumbled around trying to decide what it wanted to do: lead its audience to good theater or be led by its audience to easy-does-it entertainment.

Are we suddenly now in an artistic recession mirroring our economic recession? Heaven knows, the cutbacks are real and beginning to happen on the economic front (theaters have an economic front, like other businesses). Is our amazingly energetic theater community worn down and worn out? Is the glumness spread by anti-art forces affecting their resolve?

Too, there are counterexamples, such as BET's "The Dresser," the Kavinoky Theatre's "Death of a Salesman" (via No Limits Productions) and others mentioned below. In referring to the best of the year and, even further below, the worst, the opinions of additional reviewers, Patricia Donovan and Anthony Chase, are incorporated and noted.

Shows theater-goers will be sorry to have missed:

"Speed-the-Plow" by David Mamet. The Studio Arena got around to doing Mamet, one of our leading playwrights, very late. But do him they did, and though director Kathryn Long's production fell short of being as good as it could have been, it gave us one of the year's most satisfying comic performances by James Gleason. (The other was Rosemary DeAngelis in the Christopher Durang plays, see below, a point made also by Anthony Chase. Chase, though, came away saying "Speed-the-Plow" may have been the right idea, yet everything "was off the mark" and regarded it as one of the season's lows. Patricia Donovan voted it one of the year's best.)

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Vincent Dowling, using actors from Ireland's Abbey Theatre, for the Studio Arena. Not entirely satisfying, largely because the lead role of Jamie Tyrone was miscast, but key performances by Britta Smith and David Kelly were excellent, and O'Neill is a rarity on stages in our vicinity (or was: The monumental "Long Day's Journey Into Night" opens Jan. 17 in the Pfeifer in a promising-sounding production). Anthony Chase saw this show as one of the highlights of the season, as did Patricia Donovan.

"Beyond Therapy" and "Laughing Wild" by Christopher Durang. The Studio Arena gambled on the plays and gambled on alternating the shows. Durang grapples with society's shibboleths, not excepting religious creeds, taking them to the mat with serious and caustic humor. Needless to say, some laughed themselves sick, some walked out in a huff. Donovan seconded the merits of these shows.

"Macbeth" was produced by the Theatre of Youth in a cellar (designated a bomb shelter) of the downtown Central Library. The environmental setting worked to near-perfection, and to everyone's surprise, not least TOY itself, director Meg Pantera's show packed them into this unknown underground spot last spring, necessitating a revival this fall.

"Waiting for Godot" had the attention of the O'Neill brothers, Vincent (director) and Chris (as Vladimir), who are experts on Samuel Beckett. It took place in the Pfeifer Theatre (that's the University at Buffalo's operation), and though it might have been a mite formal in approach, it constituted good theater.

As good was Chris O'Neill's one-man tribute to Beckett, "Endwords," directed by Vincent in the Franklin Street Theatre. Both shows were high on Donovan's list.

"Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller at the Kavinoky Theatre early this fall. The professional theater on the D'Youville College campus is favored by the O'Neills. Chris directed this one, and by most accounts Stewart Roth was brilliant as Willy Loman. Donovan and Chase gave it very high marks.

"The Secret Rapture" by David Hare at the Kavinoky. Chris O'Neill directed this one, too; brother Vincent was very, very impressive in a lead role. The production may not have been absolutely top-notch, yet Hare's excellent play was well-served by the actors. Another winner on Donovan's and Chase's lists. Chase saw the season at the Kavinoky as a "good year," adding C.P. Taylor's "And a Nightingale Sang" to the list, but strongly excepting "Stagestruck" ("grotesque in conception and execution").

"The Dresser" by Ronald Harwood. This just wound up performances after an extended run at the BET. Director Bob Waterhouse did a superb job with the play, not least in persuading Fred Keller, John Buscaglia and Betty Lutes DeMunn to play the lead roles. Chase seconded the opinion, as did Donovan. Chase and Donovan made special mention of BET's new plays: Michael Quigley's "The Bump Foster Story" and Joe Agro's "The Ditch Diggers."

Other enjoyable evenings Chase spent were at a "first-class touring production" of "Les Miserables" at Shea's Buffalo, at Erica Wohl's "Conversations With Dali" in her Cabaret, Ujima's "And Bid Him Sing" ("charming . . . sure to become a Buffalo Mother's Day tradition"), the Alleyway's "Venus in a Birdbath" and the new group Summerfare's "Nunsense."

Donovan was completely at odds over "Venus in a Birdbath," thoroughly disliking it, but thought highly of the Alleyway's trilogy by Larry Gray, particularly "Scrapbooks" and "Can't Dance, Too Wet to Plow."

Out of town, the Shaw Festival treated us to a perfect production of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" (imagine our surprise to learn that the Shaw isn't returning it this summer and then to learn the Kavinoky plans the Coward play this February), and lovely productions of Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" and "Mrs. Warren's Profession," and J.B. Priestly's "When We Were Married." Three productions were likewise highly recommended last summer at the Stratford Festival: David Storey's "Home," Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" and Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

The just-finished "Night Train to Foggy Bottom" by Theatre Without Words and Coad Canada Puppets at the Royal George Theatre won the highest possible praise from Donovan.

Evenings your reviewers would like to send to the Return Counter:

So far, the current season at the Studio Arena has been a waste of time. The comic genius of Georges Feydeau was flayed by hysterical screaming and shouting actors in "A Flea in Her Ear." What followed was one of those doomed efforts to resuscitate the musical, something called "Jane Eyre" (Anthony Chase and Neil Graves saw some promise, but you have to wonder if such a rickety form is worth draining the Studio Arena's coffers for each year), followed by the current attempt to cash in on Christmas with Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Even Scrooge would hang his head in shame at the big-budgeted Studio horning in on the tiny Alleyway Theatre's Christmas cash cow (Donovan calls it "squatter's rights").

TOY's one-woman performance of "The Belle of Amherst" (about poet Emily Dickinson) sent Donovan up a wall (not so "belle," she reports). Her objections were that, one, it is a lousy play that manhandles Dickinson and, two, the performance collaborated in disguising a great poet.

Donovan also had harsh opinions of the Alleyway's "Columbus" and "Venus in a Birdbath" (Anthony Chase agreed fully with her opinion on the former, disagreed on the latter). It should be noted that the Alleyway focuses almost entirely on new work (let's overlook "A Christmas Carol") and the opportunity for failure on new work is high.

The BET's "The Physicists" last spring proved that the best intentions and a spirit of adventure aren't always enough. The show was awful. Chase thought the same theater's "Into the Square Leaps the Buffoon" was "unwatchable."

Rated very low by Chase also were UB's "The American Dream" and "The Zoo Story" and Upstage at Park's "lackluster season."

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