In the first season, studio theater audiences saw two unusual love stories. Kenneth Arnold's She Also Dances followed the growing affection between a student in a wheelchair and the sensitive athlete she hires to wheel her around campus. Saltwater Moon, by Canada's David French, was a charming account of an old-fashioned small-town courtship.
Deborah Baer Quinn, literary manager for the Walnut, says she was commissioned by executive director Bernard Havard to find provocative plays. ''Plays with bite" was the expression he used, she says.
"We are looking for plays that have something to say about our lives now," she explains. "Plays that challenge us to look at ourselves or other people in a different light."
It is not the plays alone that I remember, for some of the performances were of extraordinary caliber: Matt Callahan's sexy jock in She Also Dances; Christopher Cull's passionate suitor in the Canadian play; Simon Brooking as a charming, vital Joe Orton, heedlessly headed for his own murder; and everybody in The Normal Heart, which was played with that higher skill that comes to people engaged in something they know to be important.
These productions are mounted in upstairs spaces at the Walnut Street Theater. The third-floor Studio 3 is a room with adaptable seating; the fifth- floor Studio 5 has the more conventional configuration, with a stage at one end and seats rising to the rear. Seating in each is limited to 75 to 90 people, and low-budget sets and lighting emphasize the intimacy of the spaces.
The studio theater series consisted of four productions in its first season, five in the second. Word got around that this fare was worth patronizing, and subscriptions rose from 369 in the first season to 720 in the second.
What bothers me about the studio theater series is the upstairs-downstairs assumption upon which it suggests the Walnut operates. The good stuff is confined to small upstairs spaces for elite audiences of discriminating theatergoers, while the big main-stage season is devoted to mediocre productions of shows that are supposed to have broader appeal, even if there is no compelling reason for doing them. Downstairs is where an unsophisticated audience sees musicals and plays that pale by comparison to the New York originals.
Someday, Bernard Havard will introduce the sheep to the goats on his subscription lists. Then he won't need to stash the respectable work in upstairs rooms.
London's two national theater companies are doing things this summer that might make the American theater buff decide to cross the ocean regardless of how unfavorable the rate of exchange might be.
At the National Theater of Great Britain, the star attraction is Anthony Hopkins, who is being talked about as the most likely candidate for Laurence Olivier's mantle. Hopkins can be seen in two of Shakespeare's masterpieces. His King Lear has created a stir, and he'll also be doing Antony to Judi Dench's Cleopatra.
Also at the National, Alec McCowen stars in an adaptation by Brian Friel of the Turgenev novel Fathers and Sons. A new Alan Ayckbourn play, A Small Family Business, will be on display, and a big production in terms of resources will be a five-hour version of The Wandering Jew, the epic 19th-century novel by Eugene Sue, due in August.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's program for its mainstage Barbican Theater includes Macbeth, with Sinead Cusack and Jonathan Pryce, and Michael Bogdanov's controversial, contemporary Romeo and Juliet, with Sean Bean and Niamh Cusack as the lovers. Jeremy Irons will be seen in Richard II.
Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, the musical that did so well at the Wilma Theater this season, is one of the three works announced for production next season by the Delaware Theater Company in Wilmington. Also selected were Robert Lowell's Benito Cereno, based on the Herman Melville novel, and Larry Shue's The Foreigner, a feature of the Philadelphia Drama Guild season just past. Two more productions remain to be chosen by the Wilmington company, which is under the direction of Cleveland Morris.
The Drama Guild, for its part, has made a change in the announced schedule for next season at the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theater. Instead of Joseph A. Walker's The River Niger, the guild will do Samm-Art Williams' Home, a drama of reverse black migration to the South. The production will be directed by Walter Dallas, head of the theater department at the Philadelphia Colleges of the Arts.