On the evening of August 8, surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Los Padres National Forest, six scribes — Lee Blessing, Sherry Kramer, T.D. Mitchell, Ben Rosenthal, Len Jenkin and Christopher Trumbo — join a symposium at the ninth annual Ojai Playwrights Conference, which hopes to confront a somewhat existential question: What’s the point of being a playwright in 2006 America?

To a person, they see themselves as explorers with an obligation to challenge presumed truths. All concede that they’re swimming upstream against prevailing currents of commercial success, and a national media that they say is more interested in anesthetizing the population than informing it.

Trumbo, the son of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, remarks that the infamous McCarthy witch hunts were nothing new to America, even in the ’50s. Our national tradition of seeking enemies in every corner dates back to the Red scares of 1918-1919, Trumbo points out (17th-century Salem notwithstanding).

“Anything that questions the way the U.S. is organized tends to get suppressed and repressed,” he explains, before elaborating with the observation that we’re now paying the price for a national ambition that’s been in the making since the end of World War II — a standing army in more corners of the globe than ever before.

That such a huge army should be controlled by such a small cadre of men concerns many people in both liberal and conservative camps who might agree on little else, Trumbo adds.

Lee Blessing, the Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–nominated dramatist (A Walk in the Woods, Down the Road, Two Rooms), came to Ojai to hone his newest work, The Lonesome Hollow, a play set in the near future about an all-powerful government, the prohibition of thought, and a widespread “with us or against us” mentality.

Blessing says that he’s now writing his most confrontational plays, as the American empire expands and theaters become ever more conservative. “Watching the audiences grow more timorous dares me to challenge them not to come to my plays,” Blessing says.

“Historically, conservative elements of society don’t ask for difficult theater,” Blessing adds. “English theater took flight when the British Empire started collapsing. The dullest time in English theater was at the height of that empire. Good theater is about attacking the ways you look at everything.”

A skeptical audience member asks for whom, exactly, these dramatists think they are writing: “Are we forgetting the people in Kansas?”

“I’m not sure Kansas is clamoring for that many plays,” Blessing replies. “Kansas is very into musicals.”

The following afternoon in downtown L.A., a new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Curtains, premiered at the Ahmanson Theater. It’s their final musical, since Ebb died during the development process, as did Peter Stone, who originated the concept and wrote the first version of the book. (After Stone’s death, Rupert Holmes revised the book and worked with Kander on additional lyrics.)

In case you don’t pay attention to such things, Kander and Ebb are the team who so famously brought us Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) — and, less famously, Flora the Red Menace (1965); Happy Time (1968); 70, Girls, 70 (1971); and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992).

Curtains would do swell in Kansas — there’s even an Act 2 song called “Kansasland” — though the producers would prefer that it play on Broadway first. And, despite a cast of 27 and the cost of flying sets and a bazillion costumes, it’s so silly, wily, safely retro and spectacularly staged and performed that it just might make it to the Great White Way.

Agatha Christie meets Mel Brooks in this backstage murder mystery, set in 1959. A stage-struck Boston police detective (David Hyde Pierce) quarantines the entire ensemble of a dreary musical Western, Robbin’ Hood, inside the theater, after the awful leading lady (a heroic and brief performance by Patty Goble) collapses dead following the curtain call — this is the opening scene of Curtains.

What can the imprisoned cast and crew do but keep on rehearsing, since Robbin’ Hood is ostensibly Broadway-bound, despite being savaged by the theater critic of the Boston Globe (John Bolton). But the more the company rehearses, the more of them keep dropping dead or, in one instance, flying into the rafters attached to a noose.

The plot, if one dare call it that, is the thinnest excuse for a series of stage parodies that bring to mind Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway — an affectionate lampoon of show-biz traditions and vamps. When the powerhouse Deborah Monk, as coproducer Carmen Bernstein, belts out “Show People,” she’s channeling Ethel Merman crooning “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and the theft is gleeful. Then there are jokes about such thefts, about the creators of Robbin’ Hood being too squeamish to rip off a melody from Puccini’s La Bohème. (Rent did just that in 1996.)

Ebb’s lyrics and Holmes’ book mostly sizzle, though Carmen’s running quips about her husband’s lackluster sexual performance wear almost as thin as the plot device in which, for a chance at a second Boston Globe review, Carmen agrees to rework the entire musical in 24 hours, because any later won’t fit the critic’s schedule. As conceits go, that one’s particularly conceited.

Still, the show covers such blemishes with a coat of beguiling wit, much of it carried by Robbin’ Hood’s Wildean director, suavely played by Edward Hibbert, who proposes a moment of silence for his fallen leading lady “to match the audience’s response to her performance.”

“The Woman’s Dead,” a prayer honoring the first victim, has all the warm fuzzies of Chicago via Bertolt Brecht.

“She had no brains/She had no wits/She just had tits/And now she’s dead.”

Similar respect is offered to theater critics in “What Kind of Man?”:

“What kind of slob/Would take a job like that?/What kind of low-down dirty bum . . . Loathsome as they come/What kind of putz would squeeze your nuts like that?”

(When somebody discovers a rave remark in the shredded reviews on the floor, the critic emerges as a “genius.”)

Subplots concerning the possible reunion of a husband-and-wife composer-lyricst team (Jason Danieley and Karen Ziemba), and another about Carmen’s testy relationship with her daughter (Megan Sikora), pour dollops of honey into the acidic humor. More so than Cabaret or Chicago, Curtains is antisentimental and sentimental at the same time, simultaneously a parody and a tribute, a charm offensive embodied in a magical Marge-and-Gower-Champion dance routine performed by the elastic Pierce and the delightful Jill Paice, playing the company’s understudy. In his pristine staging, director Scott Ellis dresses up the entire spectacle in William Ivey Long’s dazzling Folies Bergère costumes, then parades it in Rob Ashford’s sexually charged choreography. But where Cabaret and Chicago used such eroticism in the service of a cynical view upon the workings of the world, Curtains is a parody of shadows. No single musical can be held responsible for the state of American theater, but Curtains is yet another indicator of the rampant conservatism that Blessing alluded to, with its nostalgic view of bygone eras that resists challenging any of our core values. (The Drowsy Chaperone played in this theater last year and went on to entrance Broadway audiences.)

Up in Ojai, playwright Sherry Kramer said she was trying to grapple with what it meant to grow up in middle-class America, oblivious to what our country was doing beyond our borders. Curtains is one more tiny part of that oblivion. If it has a heart, it beats behind Carmen’s showstopping “It’s a Business,” in which the producer belittles the earnest, exploratory impulses of artists and their art, from Gorky to Shaw to Beckett to all the scribes of Ojai — anybody whose work fails to turn a profit. Tellingly, “It’s a Business” drew one of the biggest ovations of the show. Even though Carmen later admitted it was partly bluster, her song contains no strategically sickening irony, like Cabaret’s “The Future Belongs to Me,” sung by Nazi youth. “It’s a Business” celebrates who we are at the height of empire, from Broadway to Kansas to beyond our borders. Curtains is banking on it.

CURTAINS | By RUPERT HOLMES, JOHN KANDER and FRED EBB, based on a concept by PETER STONE | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 10 | (213) 628-2772 or www.taperahmanson.org

As one character in the performance Static eats lunch and watches a TV news report about the atrocities of Darfur, a second character — similarly motionless — describes in detail the horrors she was subjected to as a victim of Darfur’s nightmare. When the victim appears on the TV screen, for a fleeting moment, the worlds of the two characters intersect. The production by the English company from Leeds, Theatre Unlimited, appears to be a political variation on a similarly stark two-character recitation by another innovative Midlands performance troupe — Forced Entertainment’s Exquisite Pain, about the essences of grief and heartbreak. The U.S. premiere of Static will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now: Photographs of Michal Ronnen Safdie.” Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed., Aug. 16 & Fri., Aug. 18, 8 p.m. (866) 468-3399 or www.ticketweb.com.

To celebrate Highways’ 17th birthday, Dance troupe Diavolo, plus Method Contemporary Dance, Bradley Michaud and Jay Bartley, Holly Johnston and LABdp plus Stephanie Nugent take the stage on Friday, Aug. 18, 8:30 p.m. On Saturday, Aug. 19, 8:30 p.m., Holly Hughes returns with a “sapphic sampler” of new work, plus a presentation by Luis Alfaro. Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. (310) 453-1755.

—Steven Leigh Morris

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