Procreation, produced by Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger in association with Beth Hogan for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, opens July 16; plays Fri., 8 pm; Sat. 7:00 & 9:30 pm; and Sun. 7 pm; through Aug. 15. Tickets: $25-$30. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda, Los Angeles; 310.477.2055 or odysseytheatre.com.
David Schweizer is equally at ease orchestrating operas with dysfunctional divas as he is taming Justin Tanner’s shrewish clan in Procreation at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
Perhaps it’s the black music stand the iconoclastic director employs during a Thursday night rehearsal that evokes the mash-up of theatrical genres he has investigated during a decidedly eclectic career spanning three decades and several continents. Positioned amongst the first tier of audience seats, it functions as both bully pulpit and firewall behind which to review the emotional landmines 13 actors are repeatedly detonating below him.
We’re deep into Tanner territory here, and that means plenty of alcohol, vitriol and betrayal. The cast is filled with Purple Heart- deserving veterans of the playwright’s previous autobiographical forays. The plot of his 20th outing looks to be a similarly acidic tour of duty — Hope hosts a birthday party for her alcoholic mother Ruby whose return releases a rat’s nest full of family secrets. Danielle Kennedy plays the matriarch from hell with bouffant hair borderline personality zing.
Tonight Schweizer asks Kennedy to do “something bigger” as she makes her first entrance into the freshly painted living room set, accompanied by cast mate Jonathan Palmer, before having the two turn up the sexual heat in an impromptu partner dance a few beats later. Meanwhile, the other actors improvise their own positions vis-Ã -vis the new furniture and sliding glass door installed since their last rehearsal. Schweizer suggests Brendan Broms “perch on the sofa” after a line delivery to avoid “the dreaded standing,” then tells Melissa Denton (Hope) and Patricia Scanlon to dial back a minor moment that “doesn’t need all that extra acting.”
It’s a fluid give-and-take atmosphere as the actors offer up bits of business to help mine the caustic comedy lurking in the dialogue. Their easy camaraderie comes from years spent together both on stage and/or as part of a Tanner-penned web series entitled Ave. 43. Working with Schweizer is a reunion of sorts for those who remember him from the Cast Theatre where Tanner and he first met during its 1980s heyday. Procreation is Schweizer’s first time directing his friend’s work as well as guiding a family of actors hand chosen by the playwright.
“I like the people he picked,” Schweizer admits. “They’re not some conventional temperament or sensibility. They have something distinctive about them and I like that kind of performer. I have rarely seen anyone in Justin’s pieces, especially the ones with bigger ensembles, where somebody struck a wrong note or I couldn’t understand why they were there. Or that I didn’t enjoy looking at in a somewhat surprising way.”
The same could be said of the soft-spoken but engagingly puckish Schweizer. Clad in a fedora, a striped seersucker-esque jacket over a beige/brown/peach Cuban-style shirt, white jeans and black boots, the white-haired and goateed director exudes a hipster Beat Generation vibe that seems perfectly suited for his eclectic flock. According to him, part of Tanner’s impetus for Procreation was to create something for this particular ensemble.
“Justin has a tradition of writing for certain people,” notes the currently NYC-based director who also maintains a home in Venice. “I mean not so that it only comes to life when those people do it, but he has various people over the years who have inspired certain parts and who he definitely kind of has in mind. I’m familiar with that and I also respect his judgment. It’s part of the spirit of this premiere and part of Justin’s whole creative trip. That was a big concern, are you going to come and have to cast different people to make it yours? I have directed so many different things in so many different situations over the years, I don’t have ego needs of that sort.”
Schweizer’s trajectory famously began as Robert Brustein’s protégé at Yale Drama School and boy wonder to Joseph Papp, directing a radical re-imaging of Trolius & Cressida at Lincoln Center shortly after college in 1974. In the decades since, he has helmed critically acclaimed world premiere plays, performance works, musicals and operas Off-Broadway, elsewhere in America, in London and throughout Europe. Schweizer’s deep involvement in the Los Angeles theater scene started in the late ’70s at the Mark Taper Forum with Kid Twist, which led to various staff and directing stints for LATC, the Actors’ Gang, Modern Artists, UCLA, Coast Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse and Long Beach Opera among many others.
In 2001, he became a bi-coastal award winner for two simultaneous 2000 mountings: The Evidence Room’s inaugural opener, Charles Mee’s The Berlin Circle, named production of the year by LA Weekly, and Rinde Eckert’s Obie-winning chamber opera And God Created Great Whales, at 45 Bleecker Theater in New York — both of which he directed at the same time.
Recent projects include Tobacco Road at La Jolla Playhouse, The Importance of Being Earnest at Paper Mill Playhouse with the late Lynn Redgrave, Motezuma at Long Beach Opera and Cyrano at Center Stage. Next year he helms a multi-theater revival of Peer Gynt (based upon a reworking he did at the Actors’ Gang), The Emperor of Atlantis at Boston Lyric Opera plus the long anticipated Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ final full-length play In Masks Outrageous in time for the playwright’s 100th birthday.
“I had a six month relationship with Tennessee Williams when I was a very young man,” Schweizer reveals. “I was 19 years old. As it turns out, he was exactly the age I am now. It had an enormous effect on my whole life. So now to be the age he was and be given the challenge of the very last play he left the world, sort of his parting shot, is amazing. He did not go out quietly. I mean it’s a big, thrilling, passionate Tennessee Williams play. I’m preparing my sort of presumptive version of the script, which I think most accurately reflects his intentions, in collaboration with dramaturge based in New York.”
Schweizer admits he was surprised that Tanner asked him to direct Procreation because the playwright has a penchant for both helming his own work and keeping a close watch over what evolves on stage.
“I’m someone who if you ask me, then I’m really going to direct your play,” he emphasizes. “I’m not just going to let the actors wander around to do whatever they want. First of all it’s a big ensemble piece with 13 people. That’s a lot to orchestrate. Thematically, it concerns some close-to-the-bone themes of his. Justin’s been dealing with dysfunctional families and weird parenting for years now, but this does so as intensely as ever, and in certain ways reveals some rather raw layers of feeling within the comedic. I think he felt he wanted to put it in someone’s hands that he trusted. I take Justin very seriously. A time will come when his stuff will be done all over the place. He just needs to sort of crack that membrane.”
To his view, Tanner belongs to a group of similarly-styled California playwrights like Marlane Meyer (The Mystery of Attraction), whose work Schweizer has repeatedly directed, and Michael Sargent (The Projectionist), a former protégé. “They have a voice that couldn’t come from anywhere but here. It’s a very dry, subversive comedic voice with a particular sense and sensibility. I find it very unique and transporting. I love working with these writers.”
He has also enjoyed working with Procreation producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger, who are partnering with the Odyssey for the first time to launch their fifth production with Tanner. The last one was Voice Lessons starring Laurie Metcalf, French Stewart and Maile Flanagan, which played to sold out houses on New York’s Theatre Row this spring after a successful 13-week run at the Zephyr Theatre last year.
“I was aware of them kind of darting around in the old days,” Schweizer recalls. “They were very aware of me also, so when Justin said he wanted me, they did some quick maneuvering to get me here. I mean I still have a place here and a car and I can think of myself somewhat as a local hire, but there were a few things they needed to be willing to do. And they were great. They’re so open and have such a great spirit about producing things. Their commitment to Justin is so total. They’ve been participants in a lot of theater and are quite sophisticated in their own way.”
Schweizer believes producers and directors in LA need to cultivate an event promoter’s mentality to win audience attention “fresh out of the gate every single time.” His years in California taught him that even theater devotees transplanted from other cities don’t attend shows with the same regularity once here. A production has to possess a very specific “must see” buzz to get them out the door.
“People have to be drawn, they have to be seduced, there has to be a particular thing that seems irresistible,” he explains. “Everyone talks about it in their different way. It’s a particular challenge. But I try and keep it really clearly in my eye. I guess the difference with me a little bit is that I don’t just think it’s the producer’s problem or the theater’s problem. I think it’s my problem in terms of just keeping constant track of the potential urgency and necessity of ‘come and see what I do.'”
With Tanner best known as a writer of comedies, that urgency requires a different tack. “It’s not the kind of event that says, ‘if you see nothing else in the 2000s, come to Procreation!’ There’s a modesty about it. But these kinds of things can make their mark and be the thing people tell one another about it. People need to say there’s this really cool play over at the Odyssey that’s hilarious–and I’ve also been thinking about it.”
After acting as an event macher for hire, Schweizer thinks it may be time to settle down as host of one theatrical destination. He’s apparently in the running to head any number of regional theaters with announced and unannounced searches in motion. According to him, the one he’s most excited about hasn’t even begun its official search process.
“I’ve spent my whole life running around avoiding that because I love the excitement of a new audience and a new place and new people. I’m just a junkie for the theater life. I love going all around the world and having things playing all over the place. But at this point I have made it known really clear that I’m ready to pour all I’ve learned over all these decades of work into one center where I can really make thrilling American theater happen. So hopefully I’ll get the chance.”
It’s one the now mellowed former enfant terrible says he realizes has an expiration date on it. His new focus is to make the most impact with the time remaining.
“I want to do as many things as possible while I still can that people will remember forever. I can’t think of any other way to say it. That’s the theater’s legacy. It’s ephemeral. It’s human beings’ separate and collective memory. I want to do as much for that collective memory as I can in the time I’ve got left, which is not spreading endlessly ahead. It’s like a couple of decades, so I want to go for it. I’m kind of back in the ring — the mature version.”
Feature image of Brendan Broms, Tom Fitzpatrick, Melissa Denton and Patricia Scanlon by Ed Krieger.