Center Theatre Group hasn’t always neglected its own community in its programming choices. After I recently wrote about the current CTG’s deficits in that department, I was reminded of CTG’s past efforts along those lines when I saw a revival of the CTG-originated Tales From Hollywood at the Odyssey Theatre.
Three decades ago, Gordon Davidson — then the artistic director of CTG’s Mark Taper Forum — commissioned Tales From Hollywood from playwright Christopher Hampton. The Taper produced it in 1982. Part of it is set in the Pacific Palisades house where Davidson lived (and still lives). An earlier owner of the house, émigré screenwriter Salka Viertel, hosted salons there for some of the writers who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe. These writers are the subject of Hampton’s play.
Talk about local programming — I wonder if any other artistic director has ever commissioned a play that’s partially set within his own abode. Has Davidson’s CTG successor Michael Ritchie checked the history of his own L.A. residence to see if any ideas for plays are lurking there?
Michael Peretzian’s staging of Hampton’s play is an engrossing and often witty glimpse of the melancholy milieu that his subjects inhabited. They were exiles in a beautiful, sunny region, where the commercial imperatives of Hollywood were almost as difficult to understand as their fractured English. Back home, their culture was crumbling, with family members and friends sent to the death camps. The ironies were almost too blatant.
Hampton chose to narrate his tale through Ódón von Horváth, a real-life Hungarian playwright who was killed in 1938, in an accident in Paris, but who might well have become one of those émigré writers in Hollywood had he survived. Gregory Gifford Giles is a revelation in the role, nimbly switching between an American-accented English when he speaks directly to other émigrés or to the audience and a thick Middle European accent when he speaks to the play’s American characters.
Hampton, a Brit who has worked as a Hollywood writer, also adapted four of von Horváth’s plays into English, including Tales From the Vienna Woods a few years prior to Tales From Hollywood. So he obviously feels a kinship with von Horváth. By establishing the dead Hungarian writer as his narrator, he advises us that he’s wielding his artistic license.
However, as usual with historical fiction that involves some real-life historical figures, I found myself wondering how much was history and how much was fiction. The play’s final scene feels especially artificial. Hampton tips his hat to a plot twist out of Sunset Boulevard, and it almost seems more fitting for his future libretto for the stage musical version of Sunset Boulevard than it is for this play.
Still, in the hands of Peretzian and company, Tales From Hollywood is generally convincing in its grasp of the spirit of that era. And it’s good to be reminded that once upon a time, CTG generated imaginative new plays set in Los Angeles.
Of course it’s even better if a company can look beyond its artistic director’s house and find inspiration among other local subjects. Certainly Davidson’s CTG did so, fairly often. But probably no other company matches the record of Cornerstone Theater in regularly producing plays about our home turf. So it’s fitting that Cornerstone chose to celebrate its own 25th anniversary by producing a new musical marking (a little belatedly) the 25th anniversary of the cityhood of West Hollywood.
The result is Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical! – and its site-specificity extends to the fact that some of the scenes from 26 years ago took place in the same Fiesta Hall, within West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, where the production is staged.
With that kind of immediacy and with a cast that includes some West Hollywood residents as well as a nucleus of professional actors, Making Paradise maintains a vibrant spirit that’s almost irresistible, despite some surprising problems within Tom Jacobson’s libretto.
Unlike Tales From Hollywood, Making Paradise doesn’t include any real-life people within its cast of characters. Probably many of those who helped give birth to West Hollywood are still alive, so a more documentary-like tone might have led to problems of hurt feelings or even lawsuits. Still, the overdone plot that Jacobson cooked up feels unnecessarily contorted and, at times, unclear (which also happens to have been my reaction to the recent non-Cornerstone production The Web, which was written by Cornerstone artistic director Michael John Garcés, who co-directed Making Paradise with Mark Valdez).
However, Making Paradise is also powered by a lively score by Deborah Wicks LaPuma, with some sharp-edged lyrics by Shishir Kurup — when they can be understood, that is. This isn’t always the case given the acoustics of this space, especially when sung by the less professional singers. Kyle de Tarnowsky leads a five-piece band at the back of the stage.
The scenes are divided between 1983-1984 and the fall of 2009. Now let’s hope that someone produces a strong new work soon about something that’s happening in L.A. County in the present day. Cornerstone’s upcoming Hunger Cycle might serve that purpose. Change the names if you must, but at least part of our far-flung theater scene should try to assume the role of town crier.
Tales From Hollywood, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; most Sundays 2 pm; Sundays Nov. 14 and Dec. 19, 7 pm; Wednesdays Nov. 3 and 10, 8 pm. Closes Dec. 19. 310-477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.
Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical!, Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, Fiesta Hall within Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Wed-Sat, 8 pm, Sun Nov. 7, 2 and 7 pm. Closes Nov. 7. www.CornerstoneTheater.org.
One of the most exciting solo shows in years, Ann Randolph’s Loveland has two more performances at the Santa Monica Playhouse, Thursdays at 8 pm. Surely this broadly comic yet also delicately nuanced performance, about an outspoken woman’s cross-country flight following the death of her mother, deserves a longer L.A. run, on days other than Thursdays (she’s been flying up to the Bay Area for weekend performances of the same show). L.A. producers, take note.
Loveland, Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Thur 8 pm. Closes Nov. 18. 800-838-3006. www.brownpapertickets.com.