Play a risk for theater; Taboos: The sexual matter of 'The Blue Room,' which was a hit on Broadway, makes some reluctant to produce it.


It's a strange thing to see a big bottle of peppermint mouthwash and a tower of tiny plastic cups so prominently displayed in a theater lobby, but there it was.

The open bottle of Listerine was conveniently located on a table, and the assembled actors who lounged around on worn sofas in Baltimore's Spotlighter's Theater waiting their turn to rehearse were encouraged to pour themselves a nice big shot and gargle.

Fresh breath, you see, is a must for the 10 actors who've been cast in the Baltimore premiere of "The Blue Room," the celebrated play about a series of related sexual liaisons that played to sellout audiences this year on Broadway.

When the risque 10-act play makes its debut Jan. 7, audiences will be treated to razor-sharp dialogue and an always controversial topic -- sex.

They'll also get an eyeful of sparsely clothed actors and a sharp dose of sexual politics and fantasy, as each scene requires kissing, caressing and strongly suggested moments of carnal knowledge.

Hence, the mouthwash.

"It's just there for anyone who wants to take advantage of it," says actress Margaret Barnes of Annapolis, who plays one of the characters in the production. "It's strongly encouraged."

Bob Russell, director of "The Blue Room," and several actors and technical staff members live and work in Columbia. Russell is president of the Columbia Community Players, Howard County's well-regarded community theater, which was established in 1973.

Columbia actor Mark Speckbeck has a theory on why "The Blue Room" had to make its amateur debut on a city stage.

"Columbia is very conservative; it's white bread with the crusts removed," Speckbeck says. "This really isn't a family show, and a community theater probably wouldn't touch it. I really don't know if this kind of subject matter would fly in suburbia."

"The Blue Room" was a hit in New York, where the run was sold out before the first show in December 1998. However, many critics credited actress Nicole Kidman's bare behind with the show's strong ticket sales and argued the play wasn't one of playwright David Hare's better offerings.

But Russell thought the play would stand on its own merits and aggressively sought the rights to the play for a local run before the show closed on Broadway three months after it opened.

"I had an eye for this play right away," says Russell, who has directed four other productions at Spotlighter's. "I knew the Broadway show was a limited engagement because Nicole Kidman was leaving after three months, and I thought I'd take a chance that they'd give it to an amateur theater in a few years."

Fate turned Russell's way when Kidman pulled out of the play early and the Broadway production closed prematurely. Russell says a number of larger professional theaters in the Baltimore-Washington region were offered the chance to produce "The Blue Room," but chose not to.

"I think this was a bit of a hot potato, this play," Russell says. "I don't think the theatrical agency wanted to give it to an amateur group, but, in the end, they gave it to us when no one else took the bait so soon after the hoopla surrounding the New York run."

It's something of a coup for Russell to have gotten such a hot-ticket play. Timing may have had everything to do with it, says Alleen Hussung, head of the professional department of Samuel French Inc., the New York-based theatrical licenser that holds the rights to "The Blue Room."

"When we have new properties that are available, we offer them to professional theaters first," admits Hussung, who offered the play to Washington's Arena Stage and another professional theater in Silver Spring. "If they pass on it, we give it to the amateur market. I'm not going to hold it off the market just because the professional theaters passed on it -- that's not good business."

Besides, she says, offering the play to an amateur group "has nothing to do with the caliber of the performance."

It was clear from the beginning that "The Blue Room" would be a risky venture for the cast. That point was made clear after the audition process.

"We all stripped down to nothing and we all did a little twirly-twirl," Barnes remembers. "It was just to make sure that you can handle some of the nudity."

All the actors also were required to sign contracts verifying that they were 18 or older.

Some actors opted not to come back after their first audition, "which was important for me to find out sooner rather than later because we don't want anyone to be uncomfortable with it," Russell says. "Usually in community theater, the director has the last word and all the veto power. But in this instance, we all have to agree about the boundaries."

"My husband has read the play and he's a little nervous, a little skeptical about what's going on," says actress Tammara Wright of Baltimore. "He'll be fine, though. It's such a unique play, especially for such a small theater."

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