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Live After Death

Panned in S.F., a local playwright wins raves in the Southland

By Zack Stentz

Is there life after a Robert Hurwitt pan? There seems to be for San Jose playwright Michael Norman Mann (no relation to the Last of the Mohicans and Miami Vice director of the same name.) When Mann's gays-in-the-military drama, Box 27, opened at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre in late 1992, Examiner theater critic Hurwitt gave it a bigger pounding than the White House received in Independence Day. "As theater, it's a hard two hours of basic training," he wrote.

Box 27 didn't get a much kinder reception from Mann's hometown critic, now-deposed San Jose Mercury News writer Judith Greene, who titled her review "Don't ask, don't tell--and don't go."

Ouch! With notices like those, many writers might be tempted to reconsider their career options, but Mann persevered, and after a slight retooling Box 27 made a second premiere, this time at the Actor's Forum Theatre in Los Angeles.

And the Southland's reaction to Mann's play couldn't have been more different than the Bay Area's. The L.A. Times called Box 27 a better play than its most famous stylistic predecessor, A Few Good Men, while Drama-Logue called it "layered and complex ... one of the most touching, skillful pieces of theater we've seen in a long time" and gave the play four awards. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gave it the group's Best Play 1997 Media Award, and, well, you get the picture.

So what accounts for this amazing contrast in critical reception? "One theory is that if one important critic likes or dislikes a new play, the others fall in line," Mann speculates, "but honestly, for the life of me I can't figure it out. I tweaked Box 27 in the past two years, and we've got a much stronger cast down in L.A., but it's essentially the same play. They blamed the script when they hated the show, and said I was a genius when they loved it."

With Box 27 now a critical and commercial success, and film production companies showing interest in a movie adaptation, one might think that Mann is in a position to "cry all the way to the bank," as Liberace once said of his own critical slings and arrows. "I'd like to say I don't care what critics say about me either way, but that's not true," Mann says. "I do care. And I'm glad that the critics in Los Angeles, for whatever reason, were willing to take a chance on something new."

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From the March 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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