"Beirut," a controversial, explicit drama about life in a society in the near future plagued by a sexually transmitted disease; "Found a Peanut," a darkly humorous (and "parental guidance suggested") play in the University of Utah theater department's Student Director Series, and three musicals - "West Side Story," "Man of La Mancha" and "Hello, Dolly!" - are among this week's theatrical openings along the Wasatch Front.

- "BEIRUT," a provocative drama about a couple living in not-too-distant future New York City, opens a limited, three-week run on Wednesday at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 South.The play, by playwright/screenwriter Alan Bowne, is described as an adult love story in a setting where a sexually transmitted disease - worse than AIDS - is devouring the country's population.

Sex has become a capital crime, with violators hung grimly from lamp posts in the streets. New York City, once the vibrant Big Apple, has been transformed into an eerie, steamy metropolis, divided into sectors and patrolled by ruthless policemen.

Everyone, everywhere, is monitored by high-tech surveillance cameras. Privacy is a thing of the past.

In this tense, repressive situation, a young man named Torch has been quarantined after testing positive for the nameless disease. His girlfriend, Blue, succeeds in crossing into the heavily guarded quarantine sector to be with him. She hopes to convince him that living without love is worse than possible death.

Walter Goodman, drama critic for The New York Times, wrote that "the marvel of Mr. Bowne's work is the richly raunchy language, turned to the gritty rhythms of the street. It's crude yet lyrical; even at its most scatalogical, the dialogue sings." (April 1987)

Another well-known critic, Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press, said: "Bowne's blue-collar banter has an odd, lyrical quality that transforms the conflict between the two lovers into an affirmation of living while accepting the certain-death consequences of their actions. The play's power can't be denied." (June 1987)

T. H. McCulloch, writing in Dramalogue (November 1987), said: "Alan Bowne makes a statement about sexually transmitted disease that is more powerful than all the soapbox orations which have attempted theatrically to explore the subject. He deals with the human spirit as it faces the inevitable, and it is a spirit of hope and love, of logic and empathy."

Director Edward J. Gryska, who is artistic director for SLAC, notes that " `Beirut' is only a play, but it is dangerous, risky theater. This community is ready for `Beirut,' even though not everyone will want to see it. `Beirut' makes you think and feel. It is challenging, riveting. What more can you ask from live theater?"

Gryska's cast includes Sue Ball, Zeke Totland and Kevin Hassett.

Ball grew up in Salt Lake City, but has been living and working in Los Angeles, where she has appeared in several television productions, including "Perfect Strangers," "Valerie" and "Our House," as well as a short-lived series on CBS and a pilot for NBC.

Totland (Torch) is a junior in the University of Utah's Acting Emphasis program. Most recently he was seen in "The Misanthrope" and "In Limine," both at the U., and is appearing in the U.'s Child Abuse Prevention "Trust" touring troupe. He portrayed Captain in the feature film, "Promised Land," and has appeared in such plays as "The House Painter," "Impact" and "Huck Finn."

Hassett (Guard) was last seen as Sam Bean in SLAC's production of "Sand Mountain." A native of San Francisco who was "raised in the West," Hassett studied in the U.'s Acting Emphasis program and has also appeared in `Night Must Fall," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Beaux Strategem," among others.

Since its premiere in 1987 at the San Francisco Playwrights Festival, "Beirut" has only been produced in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and in South Africa.

Playwright Bowne grew up in Los Angeles in the turbulent Sixties and has spent the majority of his time in New York City ". . . bumming around (working as) a movie extra, ghost writing."

He started writing when he was 35, bringing to print his insightful impressions of "the scraggly underbelly of life."

The outspoken Bowne doesn't mince words - in his scripts or away from the typewriter.

"Nobody owns this disease (AIDS)," he says. "The scary thing about AIDS is that it happened at all. I mean, this virus that's been here since day one has suddenly decided to mutate and become lethal. We have a very viral future. And that's what I'm dealing with (in "Beirut") - the sense of the next one up. If AIDS is the first heat in the viral sweepstakes, then the next one might be transmitted by more than two fluids. It's very scary for the future, and nobody can tell me that I can't be scared and deal with my fears as an artist in this regard."

"I write plays about colorful people and I bounce them off a black wall," Bowne says.

About his writing, Bowne says "I do it to expose my demons. Exposure drives the Devil nuts. But that's how you really frighten (him) out. That's what I do when I write. That's why a lot of people don't like my work. I don't pull any punches. I don't tell any emotional lies."

Besides "Beirut," Bowne is the author of several plays that have been staged in New York and by regional theaters, including "Sharon and Billy" (Magic Theatre, San Francisco, 1986 and '87), "A Snake in the Vein" (Limbo Theater, off-Broadway, 1985) and "Forty-Deuce" (Perry St. Theatre, off-Broadway, 1981).

He has also written two screenplays for filmmaker Paul Morrissey: "Mixed Blood"(1984) and "Throwback" (1988).

Bowne received the Arthur Foundation Prize in 1986 and is a member of New Dramatists.

Playdates for "Beirut" are March 1-19; Wednesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets are $11 for all performances (except for Student Rush Nights, the first Wednesday and Thursday of the run, when students with proper identification will be admitted for $6).

The SLAC box office is open from noon to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and days and evenings of performances. For further ticket information or reservations, call 363-0525.

Assisting Gryska are Cory Dangerfield, set designer, and Megan McCormick, lighting.

While there's no rating system for theater as there is for the movies, SLAC strongly suggests that prospective theatergoers consider "Beirut" as "rated R for adult situations and language."

- "WEST SIDE STORY," Brigham Young University's winter semester presentation, will emphasize a subliminal message with a heavenly perspective.

Professor Charles Whitman of the drama faculty is emphasizing celestial elements extensively throughout the work, including a conclusion where tragedy occurs just as the sun spreads its brilliant colors across the skyscape instead of the more traditional dark ending.

"I had in mind those ideas before my wife Dorothy died unexpectedly this winter, and those images are even more closely tied to my feelings now," he explains. "The music, particularly that between Tony and Maria, has celestial overtones. In the ballet sequence, the lovers even create their own kingdom."

"West Side Story" will open Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the de Jong Concert Hall of the Harris Fine Arts Center. The show will run Tuesdays through Saturdays through March 11, and a matinee will be presented March 6 at 4 p.m. Tickets are available through the drama ticket office beginning Feb. 20 at 378-7447.

More than 300 students auditioned, and Whitman says he believes the enduring appeal of the 31-year-old work contributed to the standing-room-only auditions.

"This story could take place anytime and anyplace," he says. "It analyzes what makes a gang, which is that fear of being alone. I can see the play done with an emphasis on the current Los Angeles gangs. I can visualize it in Belfast, Ireland. We have chosen to retain it in a large metropolitan city, probably New York City, and we're calling it a 1980s production with a 1950s flair.

"I also see its continuing appeal in the powerful music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It retains the ability to move people, and to weave, out of this fear, a beautiful story of incredibly beautiful love between kindred spirits."

Pop belt specialist Jan Sullivan has moved to join the BYU faculty from her former teaching post in Colorado and says she finally has the quintet she's always imagined for this show.

Other specialists include guest set designer Seven Nielsen and Los Angeles dancer/choreographer Mic Thompson. Clyn Barrus, director of the BYU Philharmonic, is conducting the orchestra; Mike Handley is doing the lighting design; and Janet Swenson and Norene Pollei are in charge of costumes. Wendy Mabee is serving as stage manager and assistant director.

Playing the leads of Tony and Maria are David Barrus and Julie Gunner. "Between them, we have a lot of lovely moments," says Whitman.

"David is positively electric; and he and Maria have a wonderful ability to connect with the audience."

Emily Pearson and Ron Paul play Anita and Bernardo; and Darin Vercillo plays Riff. Drama professor Ivan Crosland will play Doc.

- "MAN OF LA MANCHA," with Robert Peterson singing the lead role of Don Quixote, opens Friday at Town Square Backstage Theater in Provo.

Dinner theater performances will be each Friday, Saturday, and Monday evening through April 1.

In addition to Peterson, the 12-member cast is led by Neal Barth as Sancho and Paige Carabello as Aldonza. Syd Riggs is directing, and choreography is by Pat Debenham.

Dinner is served from 6-7:15 p.m., and the show begins at 7:30. Cost is $15 per person for both dinner and show. Reservations are required. Phone 377-6905.

The restaurant/theater is upstairs at the back of 35 N. University. Parking is available at 100 W. First North.

- "FOUND A PEANUT," Donald Margulies' funny, dark play examining childhood as a mythic, universal experience, will be presented Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Saltair Room of the Union Building on the U. campus.

MFA candidate Jeff Frank is directing the play, about youngsters' struggle for acceptance at the expense of their own individuality.

The play takes place behind an apartment building on the last day of summer. There are eight characters, ranging from 5 to 14 years of age. While they play and fight, they learn about life and friendship from one another. The events of the play take place in a child's world, but adults will be able to identify with these same conflicts.

In this play, the children encounter aggression, self-hatred, parental abandonment and death.

Margulies says, "Children who see the play aren't struck by the cast of adults playing children, rather they are engrossed in the behavior of their peers."

Although it is a play that the entire family will enjoy, the characters are struggling to become adults, and use mature language. The director recommends parental discretion.

(Editor's note: If "Beirut" is rated R, then "Found a Peanut" could be rated PG-13.)

The cast includes Mike Kranes, Patrick White, Lise Wilburn, Erika Johnson, Warren McClain, David Russell, Bill Harris and Rett Neale.

"Found a Peanut" plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For tickets, call 581-6961.

-HELLO, DOLLY!" will be presented March 3-25 at the Heritage Theatre, 2505 S. Highway 89 in Perry (just south of Brigham City).

A splashy, tune-filled Broadway blockbuster, the original production - with Carol Channing - opened Jan. 16, 1964, at the St. James Theater in New York City, where it ran for 2,844 performances.

Jerry Herman's exuberant score includes such show-stoppers as the title song, "Before the Parade Passes By," "It Only Takes a Moment," "It Takes a Woman" and "So Long, Dearie."

The show is based on Thornton Wilder's farce, "The Matchmaker," about a shrewd, meddling Yonkers matchmaker (Dolly Levi), who finagles her way into the heart - and coffers - of wealthy Horace Vandergelder.

The Heritage Theatre production is being directed by David Breitenbeker.

For reservations, call 723-8392 (Brigham City).