The Cates Years at the Geffen — A Hard Act to Follow

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Gil Cates died a week ago, after he collapsed across the street from the Geffen Playhouse that he created and ran. Most of the critics’ tributes so far have concentrated on his personality — go here or here if you missed them.

His brand of “gracious tenacity” — the phrase used in Steve Julian’s roundup of reactions from a few of his friends — was essential in forging the Geffen Playhouse from the combination of the old Westwood Playhouse, UCLA, David Geffen and others.

Gil Cates

But the essence of theater lies in what’s on stage and its connection to the audience, not in the building or the wealthy backers. So let’s take a look at the Geffen programming in the Gil Cates era.

I saw nearly every show that Cates and company presented under the Geffen banner. Looking at the list of 93 productions on the Geffen website, I count only four that I don’t remember seeing (it’s even possible that I saw some of those four but simply don’t remember them).

With all Cates’ Hollywood ties and his parallel career in the TV and film industries, combined with the Geffen’s location on the West Side, it wouldn’t have been surprising if his theater had become an annex of that industry — a place where the scripts often were nascent screenplays instead of stage plays, or where the primary topic was Hollywood itself.

The first two Geffen productions, in 1995-96, were indeed about showbiz — John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone and the Nicol Williamson/Leslie Megahey collaboration Jack: An Evening on the Town with John Barrymore, a solo show.

But in 1996-97, the Geffen’s first actual season, Cates declared his independence from all that. His first offering was Doug Wright’s Quills, about the Marquis de Sade. The star, Howard Hesseman, was nude during much of the play, which also featured talk about the severing of body parts.

In his Quills program note, Cates offered a refund to anyone “who feels deeply offended” and requests money back at intermission. Sixty-six patrons (out of 14,501) took him up on his offer, with a loss of $2,000 in box office revenue, Cates later reported. The next production, Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! , offered still more male nudity, but Cates said he didn’t repeat the refund offer because his concern about Quills was the violence, not the nudity.

The rest of that first season required more clothes for the actors but was probably even less predictable — By Jeeves, an Alan Ayckbourn/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on P.G. Wodehouse stories, and Shlemiel the First, a Robert Brustein adaptation of Isaac Singer material into a klezmer musical. In the LA Times, I quoted Cates saying, “If Shlemiel had nudity, I would truly be a shlemiel.”

Frank Langella and Angela Bettis in “The Father”

His decision to produce Shlemiel may have been in part a nod to his own heritage — he was born in New York with the name Gilbert Katz. It also may have been in part a nod to the West Side audiences who had seen several English-language renditions of Yiddish theater plays during the building’s previous incarnation as the Westwood Playhouse.

But it certainly didn’t start a trend. Cates kept experimenting with many different kinds of plays. He imported Mabou Mines to do Peter and Wendy in 1997-98, and he offered what I remember as the highlight of those early years — Frank Langella in Strindberg’s The Father.

In 1998-1999, Cates first revealed his weakness for the lesser works of David Mamet with The Cryptogram and The Old Neighborhood (a weakness shared by CTG’s Michael Ritchie). But he also attracted Annette Bening for the first time, in Hedda Gabler, and he delivered sterling results in the first production he directed at the Geffen, Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories. The Geffen’s first world premiere, Lee Kalcheim’s Defiled in 2000, served primarily as a vehicle for Peter Falk and Jason Alexander.

In 2000, Cates, who had the title of producing director, brought Randall Arney aboard as artistic director. Outsiders usually assume that artistic directors have the final say on programming decisions at most theater companies. But Cates explicitly retained that role at the Geffen — and there isn’t much reason to think that he ever dropped his veto power in the last decade. However, Arney certainly brought some shows and artists to the Geffen’s attention and directed in nearly every season; it’s hard to tell if Cates ever exercised his veto.

Jane Anderson’s Looking for Normal, in 2001, looked at a middle American man (Beau Bridges) who wanted to be a woman and at his wife (Laurie Metcalf) and family. I had mixed feelings about the script, but it won the Ovation Award as the best new play, and it was the first of three Anderson plays to be produced at the Geffen. Cates’ choice of his second play to direct at the Geffen, Under the Blue Sky in 2002, struck me as a rather peculiar choice — it was a mild look at the after-school activities of three sets of British teachers.

Scene from “Paint Your Wagon”

The 2003-04 season imported a play from LA’s 99-seat world, Bryan Davidson’s War Music. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but in retrospect many observers preferred the smaller production to that at the Geffen. At the end of that season, Geffen programming moved to the Brentwood and Wadsworth theaters, while the home base was being renovated. Arney supervised the return of male nudity in Take Me Out, then Cates staged his first Geffen musical, Paint Your Wagon — both at the Brentwood.

Programming returned to the Geffen itself in 2005-06. Cates directed John Goodman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the first production on the renovated mainstage, and a solo show, My Buddy Bill, was the first occupant of the new second stage — the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. Arney staged a thundering All My Sons.

The first actual plays in the Skirball Kenis appeared in 2006-07, with Cates directing A Picasso, soon followed by Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig. On the mainstage, Hershey Felder began his series of solo tributes to great composers. Anderson’s The Quality of Life was in the smaller Skirball Kenis but became the most memorable production of the 2007-08 season.

The 2008-09 season tried again to bring a hit from LA’s 99-seat theater scene into the Geffen — that is, the Skirball Kenis. This time it worked. Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara had a new director, Taylor Hackford (not Cates, which is what the Geffen website erroneously reports), and it had a renovated script, which I thought improved it. It was exciting to see one of LA theater’s biggest players extend the life of a smaller show.

“A Picasso,” directed by Gil Cates

Was Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, which began the 2009-2010 season, the worst Geffen play ever? It’s certainly one of the contenders. The season bounced back with Equivocation and The Female of the Species but then sagged again with the Cates-directed musical Nightmare Alley.

2010-2011 brought Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Anderson’s The Escort, and Arney’s staging of his old Steppenwolf pal Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts. The current season began with the raucous The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and continued with the now-playing Next Fall (see below).

In short, although the Geffen attracts more than its share of Hollywood stars and has dabbled in two of the lesser works of Neil Simon, it can’t be called a toady to the Hollywood industry. It has produced its share of unexpected productions that are far from the bottom-line concerns of Hollywood.

No, it doesn’t reflect LA any better than Ritchie’s Center Theatre Group does. In particular, it hasn’t produced much of anything that could be said to reflect or represent the ever growing proportion of Latinos within LA culture. But then it doesn’t make the claims to reflect LA stories in the same way that CTG does on the CTG website.

In fact, in the public eye, the Geffen isn’t particularly well defined beyond being Gil Cates’ theater, next to UCLA. So far, that has worked well enough for the Geffen — enough people trusted Cates’ taste. But now, with Cates gone, the Geffen board and its remaining leaders are going to have to consider, a little more explicitly, what the Geffen is all about.

I wish them well.

ABOUT NEXT FALL: Cates wrote a program note for the current Geffen production, Next Fall. Here’s the last paragraph:

Next Fall is part love story, part social commentary and very much a play that examines the lines of tolerance and intolerance that we all cross on a daily basis. It achieves all of this by asking two of the most fundamental questions — who do we love, and why do we love them? At the end of the day, it really comes down to nothing more. See you at the theater.”

Geoffrey Nauffts and James Wolk in “Next Fall”

Reading this at the opening last Wednesday, two days after Cates died, I was a little disconcerted that I found this program note somewhat more moving than the play itself.

In Sheryl Kaller’s staging of Geoffrey Nauffts’ script, Nauffts himself plays Adam, a 40ish, under-employed writer/teacher who can’t fathom any kind of religious faith. He has a five-year relationship with Luke — a better-looking, 30ish, evangelical Christian and would-be actor (James Wolk).

Luke is plagued by guilt about his sexual orientation and has yet to come out to his family, when he is struck down in a traffic accident, suddenly forcing all the people in his life together in a hospital waiting room. Flashbacks take us back to scenes in the growth of the men’s relationship.

I could see why Adam was attracted to Luke, at least for a momentary fling, but not why Luke would be attracted to Adam. And this disparity prevented me from believing that this relationship would ever have lasted five years. The deathbed vigil distracts us from all those nagging questions, but it also seems somewhat melodramatic.

The script references Our Town — aspiring actor Luke is said to have played the role of the Stage Manager in that classic, although he would have been more reasonably cast as George Gibbs. Our Town is one of those plays that almost invariably moves me to tears. As with Cates’ program note, the mention of Our Town again reminded that I wasn’t feeling so moved by Next Fall itself.

Next Fall, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Dec. 4. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.