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Way into the new theater season that opens in 10 days is Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "How I Learned to Drive." It opens Feb. 12 in the Pfeifer Theatre as the first part of this year's all-out effort by the Studio Arena Theatre to interest audiences in new, less familiar plays.

This effort is called Studio II, to distinguish it from the main seven-play season. For the second play in this abbreviated season it would like to do Yasmina Reza's "Art," a French play translated into English by Christopher Hampton. It is a character study of three friends arguing over a white-on-white painting. It has been excitedly received in theater capitals where it has played. Rights are pending.

Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" is about an incestuous relationship between a teen-age girl and her alcoholic married uncle. It offers no comfortable resolutions, reaffirms no generally accepted attitudes.

Buffalo theaters appear to be growing ever stronger. Gifted young actors are a little less likely to take the first ticket out of town. There is a whole new young bunch of talented actors eager to get in on the best work at the Studio, the Irish Classical Theatre, the Kavinoky, Summerfare Musical Theatre, Ujima, and so on.

Well under way are early-stage plans for Summerfare to put up a new theater on the Daemen College campus in Amherst (it currently uses the small Daemen Theatre as home base). Talk of Ujima moving from its Elmwood Avenue location ended when the company snatched at an opportunity to buy the
building at the corner of Elmwood and Anderson where it is has been located for many years. It will renovate and expand. Changes already have begun.

Shea's Performing Arts Center is far into an expensive construction project to enlarge its stage and backstage capacity and dressing room areas. The changes will accommodate the big touring musicals Shea's would like to get its hands on. The opening of the renovated theater in spring will make this abundantly clear: the first show is "Phantom of the Opera."

The Irish Classical's relocation to a new place on Main Street (it will be the first ground-up theater construction in Buffalo in more the half a century) has been dogged with developmental problems and construction delays. All things being equal it will open its new Anderson Theatre, named for benefactors, this fall. And if further delay is encountered, the word is that it will most certainly open this season.

Unlike most enterprise, the business of theater -- the buildings, the box office, the payroll -- and the art of theater -- the choice of plays, the presentation -- conduct a sort of crazy death-grip dance. Swing too far one way and the spirit of theater shrivels, too far the other and the business manager looks for a high window.

The volatile nature of theater requires constant fiscal assessment, and prayers to the gods of audience favor. If you look at the new theater season on these pages, you'll notice there are several new play productions each week from September through May. That's a lot to choose from. The choices are all over the map, from classic work to new plays to musicals to corny entertainments to hyper-publicized touring shows.

You may notice something else. If you imagine it as an aerial view of Buffalo theater activity, it can resemble a kind of battleground where theaters attempt to acquaint their audiences with the best new writing for theater -- and some of it like Vogel's and Reza's is remarkable -- without going into the tank. Really good theaters are a step or two ahead of their audiences without losing contact with them. It's a diplomatic art all of its own.

Buffalo theater as a whole is at this delicate stage. It is looking for a balance between the new and the familiar. The idea is to get to the new stuff, and new ways of doing theater pieces, and still retain enough of the familiar so audiences won't be turned off.

Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Studio Arena. This is because it is the biggest of the theaters that create work here. It has the big budget and the big subscription audience pressuring decisions. It's not the only theater though.

On a scale of reckless courage the Alleyway Theatre stands at the top. Not counting its Christmas shows every thing it does is new, and unknown. The Irish Classical would rank high, too. It sticks to mostly 20th century classics, but these aren't easy to do, are artistic challenges of a high order (e.g., Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters").

The Kavinoky on the D'Youville College campus also is right up there. It opens with a musical revue of Kurt Weill, one of the best composers to write for commercial musical theater, and then tackles the hugely challenging "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller and later the even grander challenge of Shakespeare's arch-villain drama "Richard III."

Summerfare used to subsist on what everyone had seen before, but over the past few years has gone out on a limb with new work. Its version of Jeffry Denman's "Dancing in the Dark" last season paid off: The Studio is staging a buffed and polished version this fall in preparation of moving it to New York's off-Broadway. This success is one reason Summerfare's backers began to look closely at building a new theater.

The skirmish between what could possibly advance the art form of theater and what merely satisfies sedentary tastes is clearest in the Studio Arena's Studio II mini-season. The first year, last year, consisted of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and David Hare's "Skylight." No money was made, some was lost. Enough to produce grumblings about canceling it this year. The board, however, stood its ground and endorsed another season.

The main Studio season appears to be trying to make up for any audience doubts about the Studio II plays. It takes a shot at most kinds of taste. Comedy (4), musical (1), drama (2), and the comedies range from John Guare's acerbic "The House of Blue Leaves," to Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," to the deliberately corny "Tuna at Christmas," to the much awaited sequel to Tom Dudzick's Buffalo comedy "Over the Tavern" (the Studio commissioned the new piece, called "Behind the Tavern").

The one musical also has a Buffalo connection: That's Denman's "Dancing in the Dark." The dramas are highly respectable: Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" (a contemporary classic) and "Jitney" by one of the best contemporary playwrights, August Wilson.

All this may not qualify as an epic struggle but it's an important one. For taken as a whole, theater qualifies as an important local industry. It's also one in which the money stays here, and in which no sophistry like that erected around the Buffalo Bills' gift package is needed to make an argument for its economic significance to the city.

Looking down the list of the new season you can sort out the unassailably good plays from the so-so ones from the unabashedly entertainment vehicles from the unknown quantities from the dramas from the comedies from the musicals and so on, as much hair-splitting categorizing as seems necessary and useful.

Playwrights of unquestionable stature: Oscar Wilde, his "An Ideal Husband" at the Irish Classical, Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" (Irish Classical); Arthur Miller, "Death of a Salesman" (Kavinoky); Samuel Beckett, three short pieces (Irish Classical); Tennessee Williams, his "The Glass Menagerie" (Studio Arena); Alan Ayckbourn, his one-act comedy "Affairs in a Tent" (Irish Classical); Harold Pinter, his "The Collection" (Irish Classical); Shakespeare, his "Richard III" (Kavinoky); August Wilson, his "Seven Guitars" (Paul Robeson) and his "Jitney" (Studio Arena); Eugene Ionesco, his "The Lesson" (Irish Classical); Sean O'Casey, his "Shadow of a Gunman" (Irish Classical).

Then there's a lot of new stuff, some brand new, some new to audiences here: Darlette E. McAlpin's "Jumpin' the Broom" at the Paul Robeson; "Naked Powerplay" by Kevin Sheard at the New Phoenix; everything at the Alleyway; a docu-drama by Fred Keller called "The Trial of Shylock" at his Cafe Theatre in the Square; Dudzick's new comedy in the Studio; Ken Shaw's adaptation of a Nancy Drew mystery in the Theatre of Youth; Neil Radice's musical "Sherlock Forever" in the Alleyway; a new musical revue based on "underground" music and writings of the 1950s by Summerfare called "After Hours". Keller, Radice, Dudzick, and the compilers of "After Hours" (Randall Kramer, Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, Jim Runfola) are Buffalo people.

There are a bunch of musicals: The Weill compilation, "From Berlin to Broadway," "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," "Wings," "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," "In De Beginnin'," "One Mo' Time," "Dancing in the Dark," "After Hours," "Blues in the Night," "Oh Coward," "Sherlock Forever," "Sondheim: Putting It Together," and then the big stuff coming into town through Shea's everyone has heard of: "Riverdance," "Phantom of the Opera," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Peter Pan."