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UNION `GENTLY' PROTESTS SIMON'S DECISION TO GO OFF-BROADWAY

The rumors were around for two weeks: The stagehands' union would picket performances of "London Suite," the new Neil Simon play at the Union Square Theater. Simon's decision to go off-Broadway is an oft-mentioned counterstroke in the battle between unions and producers over costs.

That battle may heat up this summer; the stagehands' contract expires on July 31. Some preparing for the negotiations are predicting a strike or a lockout; others pooh-pooh the idea.Throughout "London Suite" previews, no pickets appeared. Then, on opening night, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees made its move: Three well-dressed men at a polite distance from the doors handed out leaflets that read: "Neil Simon Leaves Broadway to Avoid Union Labor. He Makes Millions but Won't Pay for Stagehand Benefits."

"It was all very gentle," said Emanuel Azenberg, Simon's producer. "And I know them: one's the union vice president; one's a business agent and one I play baseball with."

Since then, nothing. And there are apparently no plans now to picket the theater or try to enlist its stagehands. Alan Myers, the business agent in question, declined to discuss the leafletting.

Inside, the single set, a hotel suite, requires a minimum of stagehands. "There's three," Azenberg said. "And they all work. They actually do things."

Moving downtown earned Simon two job offers. Both the Obies and the Lucille Lortel awards invited him to be a presenter.

- CIRCLE REP'S FIRST - For the first time in its 26 years, the Circle Repertory Company is presenting a new play by a foreign playwright. It will be "The Professional," by Dusan Kovacevic, a 45-year-old Serbian who has two films at Cannes this year.

Set in Belgrade in 1989, between Titoism and collapse, the play is about a former dissident turned editor and the bland secret policeman turned cabby who arrives with a manuscript that turns out to be the editor's own words recorded during years of spying.

Circle Rep has not stopped seeking new American plays, said Austin Pendleton, who is to take over as artistic director next season. Rather, it had a bit of luck as its season crumbled. "Snakebit," its David Marshall Grant play, was canceled because the cast and the director had other jobs. The producers of "The Professional," seeking an Off Broadway theater and willing to cast Circle Rep actors, called on just the right day.

- Donald G. McNeil Jr.