The best way to assess a theater year is not to turn to the scrapbook for a memory jog. If something hasn’t stuck in the mind, it wasn’t meant to stick there.
So off the top of the head, and with the usual run of exceptions, 1989 has been a humdrum year–a year when the wheels turned but their progress was rarely visible.
It was, of course, the year that “The Phantom of the Opera” descended upon, invaded, overtook and devoured Los Angeles, bouncing the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson season from the Ahmanson Theatre (chandeliered up for “Phantom”) to the Doolittle in Hollywood.
All to the good. Artistic director Gordon Davidson, who did double duty running the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson/Doolittle, showed no visible signs of wear.
But neither was either season particularly distinguished. Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood” (Doolittle) was a brilliant logistical exercise that was not sufficiently well performed and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Doolittle) suffered from too much Glenda Jackson.
The Taper, meanwhile, struggled with lofty intentions that did not make lofty plays (Jon Robin Baitz’s “Dutch Landscape” and Vaclav Havel’s “Temptation”), raising its head with Manuel Puig’s “The Mystery of the Rose Bouquet,” but scoring a real triumph only with “Stand-Up Tragedy.”
The latter began life in the Taper, Too which produced some of the year’s best work. Aside from “Tragedy,” it had two other winners: Jose Ignacio Cabrujas’ “The Day You’ll Love Me” and Robert Holman’s “Making Noise Quietly”–studies in contrast unified by superb calibration.
“Tragedy,” set in a tough New York neighborhood Catholic school for boys, throbbed with high-octane energy; the Cabrujas piece, about three Venezuelan sisters in love with the idea as much as the person of the legendary singer Carlos Gardel, wore a seductive Chekhovian smile; “Making Noise,” which hardly made any, was a trio of nearly-still lifes that spoke volumes between the lines.
And it wasn’t the only Taper sub-venue to surpass the Taper. Its Literary Cabaret at the Itchey Foot Ristorante as usual had terrific surprises. This year’s were George C. Wolfe’s “Spunk” (an adaptation of stories by Zora Neale Thurston) and Brian Nelson’s “Joy Luck Club” (an excerpt from Amy Tan’s novel of the same name; it has four more performances, Saturday and Jan. 6 and 7).
The mystery: Why doesn’t the Taper do in the Taper what it does so well everywhere else?
Slightly rearranged, the question might apply to the Los Angeles Theatre Center which continued its wild artistic swings as well as its battle of the budget. Survival on Spring Street is still not assured, but it should be. If only for the dazzling part of this theater’s eclectic, even courageous menu.
Examples: Thomas Babe’s laconic “Demon Wine,” Reza Abdoh’s overpopulated but arresting “Minimata” and the sheer snap of Christopher Durang’s “The Marriage of Bette & Boo.”
In an otherwise subdued season, South Coast Repertory’s “You Never Can Tell” reinforced its image as a first-rate institution on any scale. And even though the Pasadena Playhouse didn’t come up with a blockbuster in the order of “Mail,” it continued to flex real muscle, most obviously with Rupert Holmes’ mystery comedy thriller, “Accomplice.”
Significantly, 1989 was also the first year in 17 that the smaller theaters of Los Angeles functioned without the free-for-all of the Equity Waiver Plan (whereby Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, “waived” certain rules in theaters with 99 seats or fewer). The Actors’ 99-Seat Theatre Plan which has replaced it (a modification that includes a mandatory minimum payment of $5 per actor per performance) has not rocked any prosceniums. So far. Life in the theater has gone on with only a normal rate of attrition.
In the realm of the “institutional” smaller theaters–those with identity and track record–Theatre 40 did distinguished revivals of Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” and David Storey’s “Home.” Such perennial dependables as the Cast seemed unstoppable. Artistic co-directors Ted Schmitt and Diana Gibson cranked out a full slate of new plays, of which one–Raymond J. Barry’s “Once in Doubt”–bounced from there into the lap of the regular season at LATC. A first for both.
The Padua Hills Playwrights’ Festival, which has had as many ups and downs as the decade itself, seemed to recover its stride on the Cal State Northridge campus. It offered enough vigorous new work (especially Julie Hebert’s “Almost Asleep”), to put some recent lackluster years securely behind it.
The most serious loss on the smaller theater front, after 10 distinguished years, was the Back Alley Theatre. The wide-stage house on Burbank Boulevard in Van Nuys closed its doors in October with a stylish production of Matthew Witten’s “The Deal.”
Producing co-director Allan Miller would not say if the Back Alley will be back. “We’re maintaining the organization and several board members and will be discussing things in the coming months.” A talked-about move to a larger space is off for now, he said, “but it’s still a dream we have.”
The Back Alley had given us another of the year’s best memories: a deliciously giddy production of John Olive’s “Voice of the Prairie,” about the early days of radio and the telling of tall tales, that relished the spoken word.
We didn’t lose the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. It lost its home of 16 years and was forced to move from the corner of Bundy Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard to temporary quarters at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Temporary is the keyword here. Production continues, but the move was twice as expensive as originally anticipated (up to $140,000 and still counting). Artistic director Ron Sossi, who has been trying to make the leap to a union house for several years, insists this won’t delay him.
For the rest, here’s a bag of random thoughts:
* The Westwood Playhouse had a lackluster year that ended in a change of management. The new team of Eric Krebs and Howard Pechet didn’t give it the hoped-for lift with their inaugural show (“The Eighties”), but at least they produced it and aren’t dedicated to just booking the house.
* After 25 years, East-West Players replaced its founding artistic director Mako with Nobu McCarthy. It’s too soon to tell how the change will affect this theater. Its recent revival of, of all things, “Company” was well received, but we still haven’t seen a new drama there from Thailand or Vietnam.
* The Inner City Cultural Center acquired the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood as a place to move shows with long-run potential. But the Ivar, which housed porno stage shows for the past 10 years, needs some major refurbishing (for which money has yet to be raised) and how many long-running shows can we reasonably expect?
* Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe arrived in Santa Monica, but its satirical impact on Southern California has been disappointingly minor, particularly when measured against the lively chomp of our very own Groundlings and some of the city’s younger and wilder comedy troupes. The fact that it’s gone through a couple of artistic directors already may mean that it’s well aware of all this.
* Finally, inevitably, we come to the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera which this year decided it was OK to deliver plays instead of musicals. One can be grateful for “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Steel Magnolias,” but why present them under the LACLO banner?
To the specious argument that there is “not enough product” (the reigning rationale of the ‘80s), we submit that Long Beach Civic Light Opera managed to blossom in this decade and that Tyne Daly was seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion only last summer in the strongest revival of “Gypsy” this side of Angela Lansbury.