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Leading Ladies of the Geffen

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Several seasons back – maybe 2010, but don’t hold me to it – the Geffen Playhouse marketed its Season of the Woman because the announced plays had a slew of strong roles for leading ladies and because they had some formidable actresses coming in to play them - Annette Bening among them, if memory serves.

“Season of the Woman” seemed as appropriate a marketing hook as any, although unless you’re programing, say, a full slate of David Mamet or Sam Shepherd, you’re probably going to slot something with a choice female role. And goodness knows, the Geffen does get good actresses.

This rumination occurs to me now not so much because I’m aching to take a stroll down Geffen Memory lane (a journey that would lead me past some memorable performances by actors of both gender) but because Bening is returning to the Geffen in April and she’s got the stage all to herself. She’ll be followed by none other than Blythe Danner, herself a Tony Award winner and a grand lady of the stage, in a world premiere by another Geffen favorite, Donald Margulies.

Draper first. Beginning April 16, Bening will essay the monologs of Ruth Draper, a turn of the century American actress who – legend has it – created and then broke the mold for solo acts. Via a series of monologs that had her playing hostesses, society women, debutantes and the like, Draper shape-shifted her way across America and around the world.

The credited director for “Ruth Draper’s Monologs” is Bening herself, which could mean that the actress will be free-forming it, reading and riffing as the fancy takes her. And the Geffen will charge $37-$77 for the privilege of watching her do it.

Bening now qualifies as a Geffen regular having pretty much guaranteed a sell out with her “Hedda Gabbler” way back in 1999 followed by a turn in the darkly comic “Female of the Species” by Joanna Murray-Smith in 2010. Not long afterwards, she headlined “Medea” at UCLA and she played opposite Alfred Molina in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at the Mark Taper Forum. Yes, when she takes the stage, it’s in L.A.

Blythe Danner, on the other hand, has not been around L.A. stages very much at all over the years although it looks like she took a turn in the title role of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” at the Taper in 1971. Danner has a ton of New York and Broadway credits including four Tony nominations and a victory for “Butterflies are Free” in 1970. Danner’s other familiar stage stomping ground is the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts which is part of what makes “The Country House” such an apt project since she’ll be playing the matriarch of an acting family gathered in the Berkshires during a Williamstown season. This is Margulies riffing on Chekhov with Daniel Sullivan directing and the Manhattan Theatre Club co-producing (and eventually getting the performance for a fall run).

“The Country House” opens June 11 and runs through July 13, following “Ruth Draper’s Monologs.” That’s two primo opportunities to see two very well known, and very seasoned actresses who know their way around a stage.

But here’s a reason why you should be going to the Geffen right now.

On the smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis stage, through April 21, is a lovely two hander called “Slowgirl” written by Greg Pierce. This production features William Petersen (of “CSI”) and a young actress who you may have never heard of.

But you should.

Her name is Rae Gray, and she plays a teen ager named Becky who visits her uncle in Costa Rica. Gray’s is the not so quiet part - a young woman with a major set of problems on her hands.

You can read my review on TheaterMania here.

Then go see her live.

(310) 208-2028, www.geffenplayhouse.com.

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