BREAKFAST AT TRIO is not quite as glamorous as, say, breakfast at Tiffany's. But it's just as memorable for actress Dale Stein, who left Washington for New York three years ago to develop her solo act. So, since she's back for three weeks to perform her one-person play-with-music "A Fresh of Breath Air" at the Playwrights Theatre (the former American Playwrights Theatre, which is the former New Playwrights' Theatre, where Stein began her stage career), Stein assembled a bunch of her collaborators and theater buddies for a chaotic Sunday morning pre-rehearsal breakfast at the 17th Street restaurant, a longtime actors' hangout.
Returning to her old haunts with her old friends gets Stein to reminiscing wistfully about the days at New Playwrights', way back when. "I was thinking about how many readings were done, and how much work came out of there, the money you could get away with not having at that time, and how you can't get away with that now so much," she says.
Stein, a founding member of the nomadic Smallbeer troupe, which is producing the D.C. run, says she went solo because "I got tired of waiting for other people to do it for me. And I was writing songs, but I know that listening to someone singing all these unconnected songs is really boring, so I started to tell jokes in between them. Then more characters started to arrive and they got more interesting than the songs. Now I let other people write the songs."
Charles Goldbeck is Stein's composing collaborator; she'll be accompanied by a piano-bass-percussion trio. "So the solo stuff is really my focus now," she says. "I don't even audition anymore."
"You had to audition for this part!" says director Chris Ashley.
"Yeah, right," Stein says. "We've almost got the script in shape, and then Chris is gonna look around and say who's gonna play Dale?"
Like Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, Stein creates vivid characters -- lots of them. Sort of an extension of the imaginary friends of childhood, they ensure Stein always has someone to talk to. "But it's a creative thing, not a schizophrenic thing," Stein says.
"We have a very good working relationship," says Ashley. "Dale creates these characters and I kill them."
Stein says "A Fresh of Breath Air" has been through about "500 incarnations -- from skits and songs to a whole big two act plot with a detective and a murder," and now it's somewhere in between, boiled down to five characters. There's Fifi Moulour, owner of the Oui cafe, a haven for the play's oddballs. And Shane, "who sings there, she's a young gal with a plastic brain." Also, Lenny "of Lenny and the Loungettes, a musical group"; Alexandra Vertu, "the architect who is rebuilding the city that is going up around Fifi's place"; and Nina, "an actress who lives in the neighborhood. She's at Fifi's to recite her memoirs to a biographer." And there's Fifi's doggy, who Stein says gets a career in the play.
Though her characters are certainly comical, Stein says she hopes her play also says something about "the encroachment of progress, how they're turning everything into a big city, how it affects us little people."
But it's not "a 'Belle of Amherst' one-person-show kind of thing. I'm still exploring the nature of this . . . ," she says, searching for the right word.
"Beast," offers her husband, teacher Dom Ambrosi. Stein and Ambrosi have a commuter marriage -- he works in Washington while Stein develops her solo work in New York at places such as Cooper Square Theatre, Jim Nicola's New York Theatre Workshop, cabaret spots such as Steve McGraw's and "the little clubs where the bar is right there and everyone, um, participates."
Asked why she left Washington for New York in the first place, Stein searches for words. "When I went there I wasn't sure at all why I was going there. But now that I've been there, I know why I went. New York has more . . . people. More taxis, bad smells, more incredible visions. I don't think I could have written the same show if I had stayed here."
"The correct answer, Dale," says Ashley, "would be: 'I wanted to do an out-of-town tryout for Washington.' "
"A Fresh of Breath Air" continues at 1742 Church St. through June 17. Call 277-8117.
AN ASIAN-AMERICAN theater company for Washington was just an excited glimmer in actor David Yang's eye at this time last year. Yang wondered why this city, with its relatively large Asian-American population, didn't have a theater group to represent it, as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco do. Yang brought his idea up with Washington's Asian-American Arts & Media Organization, and now, a year later, the fledgling Buddhahead Theatre Project is putting its first work before the public: a workshop production of Philip Gotanda's "Yankee Dawg You Die," produced by and presented at the Washington Project for the Arts, in collaboration with the Round House Theatre.
As this is considered a workshop staging, the troupe will perform just the self-contained first act of Gotanda's play, which is about two Asian-American actors -- an older man (played by Leo Surla) who has achieved fame, but took any role to do so, playing the stereotypical roles of the "chop-suey circuit"; and a young, socially conscious firebrand (Yang), who refuses to go that route.
The 12-member core of the acting company has been strengthened by an informal 10-week acting workshop team-taught by Round House artistic director Jerry Whiddon and Tony Elliot, who directed "Yankee Dawg." Round House has committed to collaborating with the Asian-American troupe in the future.
"We're very far from being a theater company," says Yang. "It's a good start, though. It will be a long road because many of us are untrained actors."
The play will be performed in the WPA gallery space, amid an exhibit of large paintings and screens by Tom Nakashima. "Tom's work will serve as a backdrop, sort of a mini-cyclorama," says John Moore, acting director of the WPA. "It works very well with the play. It gives the ambiance of being in the East, and the pieces are about his heritage."
Moore says WPA plans to bring in work with more theater groups; it has already commissioned actress Joni Lee Jones, artistic director of HOME: Theatre for a New Columbia, to write a piece to accompany an August exhibition by South Carolina artist Mildred Baldwin, whose realistic paintings are centered around family life -- and the television.
"We're trying to raise our profile in terms of what we do with the performing side of the arts," Moore says.
"Yankee Dawg You Die" will be performed Friday and Saturday at 7:30 at WPA, 400 Seventh St. NW. Call 347-4813.