Actress Elyse Mirto notes script changes director Andrew Barnicle makes during a rehearsal of "The Verdi Girls" at the Laguna Playhouse rehearsal center in 2007.

Actress Elyse Mirto notes script changes director Andrew Barnicle makes during a rehearsal of "The Verdi Girls" at the Laguna Playhouse rehearsal center in 2007. (Daily Pilot File Photo)

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The Laguna Playhouse is gearing up to celebrate its 90th (that's right, 90th) season in 2010-11, but somehow it won't be quite the same as the past 20.

Andrew Barnicle, the playhouse's popular and highly skilled artistic director, who has held the position since 1991, is calling it a career, at least in Laguna.

"I've been thinking about leaving for a while," he said. "With the current season locked up, contracted and running very successfully so far, I felt it was a good time to begin the transition, before getting too far into planning the 2011-12 season."

Barnicle departs with an admirable record — he's produced 120 productions in Laguna and has directed 39 of them. Asked for his favorites, he harkens back to his first year at the playhouse and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"That show had the Playhouse Youth Theater kids as the most determined fairies anybody ever saw and the late, beloved, king of the hambones, George Woods as Bottom," he said.

Barnicle also singled out "the five Bernard Farrell plays that we introduced to the United States (topped by 'The Verdi Girls,' 'Many Happy Returns' and 'Lovers at Versailles') and the Richard Dresser plays that we brought life to ('Rounding Third' stands out here).

"'American Buffalo' was a watershed moment," he added, "and proved that our audiences weren't as timid as a lot of people thought."

That one was by David Mamet, who writes much of his dialogue in the key of F.

Moving to more recent events, he cited two others that "will always live deep within my indefatigable sense of mischief: 'Red Herring' and 'Moonlight and Magnolias.'"

After viewing the former show, this column observed, "Director Andrew Barnicle lets his fertile imagination run wild, resulting in an eminently watchable production." The latter drew this comment: "A huge triumph for playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle, whose staging is perpetually laugh-inducing."

Other shows he also might have included among his finest (at least from this perspective) were "The Sleeper," "Bright Ideas" and "Tabletop." And, for pure chuckle appeal, "The Underpants" and "An Empty Plate at the Café Du Grand Boeuf."

Equally skilled as an actor, Barnicle excelled in a half-dozen playhouse productions, most notably "True West" and "The Ice-Breaker," the latter performance drawing this column's praise as "gripping and heart-rending."

Barnicle may be leaving the playhouse, but he'll be taking his time about it. Next season will be his 20th and, while he won't be artistic director, he'll be involved in the process of selecting his replacement, as well as directing the season's closing production, Noel Coward's "Private Lives," opening March 15.

"We will all certainly miss Andy but support his decision," Managing Director Karen Wood said in a news release. "Two decades of service is something to celebrate — in fact, Andy has agreed that we may honor him during our 90th anniversary activities."

"I've received nothing but terrific support at the playhouse," Barnicle said, "but I wanted some time to try some new things in some new places. Purely my decision."

And finally, as the last word in two decades' worth of personal digs, he quipped, "Actually, I'm thinking of becoming a theater critic. I hear that's a big growth industry."

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.