David Mamet was in the Taper audience on Sunday evening — an especially noteworthy appearance because it was Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow that had been ousted from the Taper season to make room for the production that was opening, a revival of Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses.
When the change in the season was announced in December, I had mixed feelings. The Subject Was Roses was yet another Center Theatre Group play set in a now-distant era in New York, in the tradition of Michael Ritchie’s first production at the Ahmanson, Dead End, and his first production at the renovated Taper, The House of Blue Leaves. I’ve often expressed the wish that Ritchie might find more plays that are set in or close to Los Angeles — and Speed-the-Plow would have qualified for that distinction, at least superficially.
On the other hand, Speed-the-Plow is set in Hollywood, which is the one part of L.A. that is perhaps too frequently dramatized. Mamet’s Hollywood play has received productions at South Coast Rep, the Geffen, the Odyssey…would a Taper revival have added any new insights? I doubt it.
The Subject Was Roses has seldom been seen in L.A. It has shown up a couple times in sub-100-seat houses in the past quarter-century, but not in major theaters. CTG and the Geffen have produced quite a few lousy Mamet plays recently — mainly because, well, they were by Mamet. So I figured that The Subject Was Roses would at least offer the advantage of not being another late-Mamet effort.
By the way, one of those late-Mamet also-rans, Romance, was Ritchie’s first production at the pre-renovated Taper. It was directed by Neil Pepe. Ritchie then hired Pepe to stage the Taper’s Speed-the-Plow. When that fell through, Pepe got the gig for The Subject Was Roses. He’s the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company in — whaddya know? — New York.
At any rate, The Subject Was Roses had one far more important advantage this season — it was brought to the Taper by Martin Sheen, who created the role of the son in the original production in 1964 and is now playing the father. With a star turn like that, it would have been unreasonable to have expected CTG to resist.
Sheen’s very good. At age 69, he’s 19 years older than his character, who’s the father of a G.I. recently returned from World War II in 1946. But Sheen’s able to play younger, and he blends middle-aged weariness with the determination of someone who still sees himself as a fighter.
Frances Conroy masterfully raises her eyebrows and her voice to express the colossal frustrations and anxieties of being the wife of a man who doesn’t much like her and the mother of a man who’s about to leave her. Brian Geraghty plays Sheen’s original role of family mediator with an over-eager laugh that seems designed to maintain a tenuous peace in his battle-scarred home.
The play itself is no great shakes. It can’t shake us up in the same way that those great American mid-century family dramas by Miller, Williams and Albee can — and do. Despite all the gradually revealed backstories and the resulting explosions in Roses, it’s much lighter than those dramas — the final line actually gets a laugh. But who knows — perhaps that makes it more directly identifiable to many theatergoers whose families are not on the turbulent level of the families in those greater plays. Gilroy’s technique is more dated than his subject.
I wonder if any consideration was given to updating the play. With Geraghty now well-known for his role in The Hurt Locker, it would have been interesting to see him playing a young man who returns to a contemporary domestic battlefield after service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some lines would certainly have to be changed or dropped — few veterans of more recent wars would look back as fondly on vaudeville as this character does, for example. But it would have given the production a raison d’etre besides serving as a star vehicle for Sheen.
The Subject Was Roses, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Tues-Fri, 8 p.m.; Sat, 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun, 1 and 6:30 pm. Dark on March 7. Closes March 21. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Sometimes productions from L.A.’s 99-seat world achieve considerable success and then seem to disappear. The Colony, in its 99-seat days, premiered Doug Haverty’s Could I Have This Dance? in 1991. It went on to win the 1992 award from the American Theater Critics Association as the best new play produced outside New York. But a 1993 New York production didn’t get a good review from the New York Times, and the play seemed to vanish after that.
I’m glad Theatre 40 revived it this year. But although I wish I could say that it’s a rediscovered gem, I can’t. It’s not bad, but its “best new play” accolades set up expectations that it can’t fulfill.
In Haverty’s story, two adult sisters are faced with taking a medical test to see if they’re likely to develop their mother’s malady, which simultaneously restricts her ability to talk and causes her to wander around the house in what look like dance steps (hence the title). The daughters, who also work side-by-side in their parents’ home as Hollywood publicists — a bit of a credibility stretch — disagree on whether they should take the test. The play is mostly about them and their boyfriends instead of their mother and her disease.
Perhaps to make up for their mother’s silence, the daughters discuss their issues on and on — and the discussion is a little too on-the-nose. After all these years, it would have been better if Haverty could have looked for ways to trim the script and make it less obvious.
A small-theater hit from 2004-2005, Bark!, has turned up in what I would have thought would be an unlikely venue, the huge Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, under the auspices of the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. David Troy Francis’ musical, with book and lyrics by Mark Winkler and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard and additional lyrics by Robert Schrock, is a show about six dogs, in what amounts to a revue format. There’s a tiny attempt to build suspense in a narrative line concerning whether the youngest pup will ever learn to bark properly — but please don’t force me to give away the ending. The entire show seemed pretty tiny at its former home, the Coast Playhouse.
It has been expanded scenically. Whether this actually works for the theatergoers in the back rows, I wouldn’t know, because I was seated almost as close to the action as I had been at the Coast. As I recall, the dogs didn’t leave their doggy day care center in the show’s earlier incarnation, but this time around they romp in a park after the intermission — although how they get there, and under whose supervision, is never explained. I don’t know what other revisions have been made.
For whatever reason, the second half struck me as remarkably more successful than the first half in Stephanie Coltrin’s staging, in part because the songs are more interesting but also because the park setting allows more freedom for the choreography. The ending is unblushingly sentimental, in a gooey but good way — at least if you’re a dog person.
Kudos to James Blackman’s company for plucking a property out of sub-100-seat obscurity and giving it a much bigger forum, if only for a few weeks.
Could I Have This Dance?, Theatre 40 at Beverly Hills High School campus, 241 Moreno Dr., Nightly through Saturday, 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Closes Sunday. 310-364-0535. www.Theatre40.org.
Bark!, CLO of South Bay Cities at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Nightly through Saturday, 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 2 pm. Closes Sunday. 310-372-4477. www.civiclightopera,com.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.