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.

Productions Propagate. Plummer, Passion Play and Porter.

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Professional theater in LA is growing, not shrinking — at least in terms of numbers of productions.

Two years ago, I asked Actors’ Equity how many productions occurred in Greater LA on Equity contracts and how many had instead used the 99-Seat Plan (which is available only within the LA County borders) in the previous year. The 2011 stats, as reported by Equity, revealed 216 shows on Equity contracts and 371 on the 99-Seat Plan.

In 2012, those figures grew to 230 productions on Equity contracts and 402 on the 99-Seat Plan.

In the just-completed 2013, Equity reports 236 shows on contracts and 392 on the 99-Seat Plan. In other words, the number of 99-Seat Plan shows was down slightly from the previous year, but the number of contract productions continued to grow — and both numbers were higher than in 2011.

This year, at my request, Equity explicitly checked and then confirmed that the 236 contract-signed shows in 2013 occurred not in the entire “Greater LA,” which might also have included Orange and Ventura counties, but only within LA County — the same territory that’s also covered by the 99-seat plan. This coverage of precisely the same area makes the comparison between the number of contracts and the number of 99-Seat Plan shows closer to comparing apples to apples. And it makes the growth in the number of contracts more impressive, when you figure that productions at South Coast Repertory or the Rubicon Theatre aren’t included in those 236 contract shows — even though these OC and VC companies are likely to draw talent from the vast pool of Equity members who live in LA.

Perhaps these numbers simply reflect the gradual recovery from the recession. But whatever they reflect, it would be handy to have figures like these in the back of your brain, for easy recall the next time you hear someone moaning about “theater is dead” or saying the phrase “theater in LA?” with a pronounced question mark.

However — yes, there’s usually a “however.” This past week, as I made my rounds of new productions, I was struck yet again by one of the remarkable ironies of LA theater — too often, the smallest shows are in the biggest theaters and the biggest shows are in the smallest theaters.

Christopher Plummer in "A Word or Two." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Christopher Plummer in “A Word or Two.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The extremes of this fiscal-driven irony were most apparent as I watched Christopher Plummer’s solo A Word or Two at one of the biggest theaters in town — the Ahmanson — and then saw the LA premiere of the 15-actor, three-act, three-hour, three-country, three-era Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre.

The bigger theaters pay actors something approaching a living wage (and in Plummer’s case, considerably more, I’m sure). But like nearly everyone, these companies sometimes have to economize. And one of their most convenient options is to hire fewer actors, which is accomplished by presenting small-cast shows — even if these shows sometimes feel a bit stranded on the relatively large stages and even if those in the back rows have to strain to see the actors’ faces.

The smallest theaters pay actors only token fees. But as long as the actors are willing to play for hardly any pay, these companies obtain the freedom to tackle huge texts — even if these productions might look cramped on the relatively tiny stages, even if contract-free actors sometimes feel free to desert the production in order to accept more lucrative gigs.

Anyone who comes up with a brilliant plan to make sure that all worthy plays land on LA stages that are appropriately scaled for the maximum aesthetic effect deserves a Nobel Prize — well, at least an Ovation — for stage economics.

In Plummer’s case in A Word or Two, the play centers on his own personality and his own background, both of which appear to be big enough to fill the Ahmanson — although I can’t speak for those spectators who are in the rows most remote from the stage. But even if they can’t see his face very well, I trust that they can probably hear his amplified words. The text is much more charming than his previous solo effort at the Ahmanson, Barrymore.

And if those in the back rows give up trying to see Plummer’s facial nuances, they can still admire designer Robert Brill’s leaning tower of books, which dominates the stage even more than Plummer himself. In fact, Brill’s set looks as if it would be so impossible to erect on most of LA’s smaller stages that it alone almost aesthetically justifies the decision to stage A Word or Two at the Ahmanson.

Of course, I have to note once again that whatever the considerable merits of both A Word or Two and I’ll Go On at the Kirk Douglas, the Center Theatre Group programming right now looks unduly skimpy, as two of its three stages are simultaneously used for one-older-man shows, while the third venue is vacant. But that monopoly for male soloists who are older than 60 will end soon, when Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike opens at the Taper, with a cast of four women and two men.

Shannon Holt, Beth Mack, Tobias Baker, Amanda Troop, Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, John Charles Meyer, Dorie Barton and Brittany Slattery (under table). Photo by Enci.
Shannon Holt, Beth Mack, Tobias Baker, Amanda Troop, Daniel Bess, Christian Leffler, John Charles Meyer, Dorie Barton and Brittany Slattery (under table). Photo by Enci.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bart DeLorenzo and Evidence Room are introducing Ruhl’s intricate Passion Play to LA at the 99-seat Odyssey, which is co-producing it.

I recently wrote that Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play was her masterpiece of her plays that I had seen, although I noted that I hadn’t yet seen Passion Play. I also expressed my astonishment that In the Next Room was finally introduced to LA County by the little Production Company at the tiny Secret Rose Theatre — which makes the Odyssey look almost gargantuan by comparison — and not at one of the CTG venues or the Geffen or any of our midsize theaters.

Now that I’ve seen Passion Play, I still see no reason to change my opinion that In the Next Room is better. But Passion Play is more ambitious — so ambitious, in fact, that it’s also much more difficult to pull off. DeLorenzo and company do a good job, but I couldn’t help but suspect that it might be more powerful in a larger, better-endowed theater with more money, rehearsal time and other resources.

Passion Play is built around the tradition of passion plays — theatrical productions that are usually played outdoors for huge audiences. However, Ruhl’s work probably shouldn’t be presented in a massive amphitheater. She’s more interested in what’s going on behind the scenes of these ritualized productions, which are presented year after year, often with the same casts of not-quite-professional actors.

So she takes us to three of them, beginning with one in northern England in 1575, jumping to Oberammergau in 1934 Germany, then landing in 1969 at a fictional facsimile of Spearfish, South Dakota’s Black Hills Passion Play (which recently closed after nearly seven decades).

The same actors play similar characters in all three settings, but with fascinating differences that reflect the changing centuries and historical circumstances. Most of these characters are personally involved in producing the passion plays, but each production also attracts an official visitor from the area’s and the era’s reigning state power — Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan (who shows up not for the 1969 production that begins the third act but in its later depiction of the rendition in 1984, when he was the president). Shannon Holt digs into all three of these disparate bigwigs at the Odyssey.

The third act, perhaps because it’s closer to contemporary American audiences, is drawn-out more than the other two acts, not always successfully. Parts of it feel like unnecessary digressions from the focus that Ruhl otherwise has maintained. This is the main reason why the more cohesive In the Next Room is a better play.

Still, Passion Play tackles so many issues through such an ingeniously created prism that it certainly deserves your attention — and, like In the Next Room, it should have received the attention of the larger LA institutions that might have brought it to wider audiences with the benefit of larger budgets and more expansive (and expensive) scenic resources.

Maria Tomas, Vincent Guastaferro, David Fraioli and Jonathan Kells Philips in "On The Money." Photo by Tim Sullens.
Maria Tomas, Vincent Guastaferro, David Fraioli and Jonathan Kells Phillips in “On The Money.” Photo by Tim Sullens.

By contrast, it would be hard for even this midsize theater advocate to contend that a claustrophobic thriller as tightly wound as Kos Kostmayer’s On the Money belongs in a bigger space than the 99-seat Victory Theatre in Burbank, where I first saw it in 1983 (when the playwright’s first name was John instead of Kos) and where it has now returned. It helps for the audience to feel as close as possible to the New York barroom where On the Money takes place, and we feel like flies on the wall at the Victory.

The play examines three of the bar’s employees — all of them hard-pressed financially for different reasons. One of them hatches a plan to hire a thug to stage a late-night robbery of the bar and split the proceeds. The bartender resists the idea, until the pugnacious owner drives him into the pro-robbery camp. Of course, not everything goes according to plan.

The 1983 production won awards. The current revival is directed by Victory co-artistic director Tom Ormeny, who played the bartender for five months 30 years ago. It’s a barnburner.

Although the prospect of petty street crime in New York isn’t as intense as it was in the ‘80s, the prospect of underclass resentments of the wealthy is perhaps even more pervasive now, and the dangers of guns brought into public places is reinforced in just about every news cycle, including this weekend’s.

A Word or Two, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand, downtown LA. Tue-Thu 8 pm. Sat-Sun 3 pm except Sat Feb 2, 1 pm. Closes Feb 9. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400. 

Passion Play, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Wed Feb 19 and March 5, 8 pm. Thu Feb 13, 27 and March 13, 8 pm. Closes March 16. www.OdysseyTheatre.com. 310-477-2055.

On the Money, Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes March 2. www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org. 818-841-5421. 

LA’s midsize theaters, of course, offer a happy medium between the more expensive contracts of the large theaters and the for-peanuts pay of the small theaters, while usually preserving much of the intimacy of the latter.

Jennifer Shelton, Lindsey Alley, Marc Ginsburg with Brian Baker on piano in "Let's Misbehave." Photo by Suzanne Mapes.
Jennifer Shelton, Lindsey Alley, Marc Ginsburg with Brian Baker on piano in “Let’s Misbehave.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

The week’s newest offering at a midsize theater is Let’s Misbehave, a four-actor musical based on Cole Porter songs but with a slender book — a Mamma Mia! for Porter fans instead of Abba fans. It’s at International City Theatre.

Ideally, there should be more Porter fans in the world than Abba fans, and ICT’s venue in Long Beach indeed appeared to be more filled than usual on Sunday afternoon. Of course, the average age at a matinee at ICT is old enough that one of the reasons for even yours truly to go there in the afternoon is to feel young in comparison to most of the audience (although certainly not in comparison to the cast).

Librettist and co-conceiver Karin Bowersock imagines three friends at the end of a summertime party in New York in the mid-‘30s, closing the door after the other guests depart and then beginning the gossip as well as the beguine. They do so in song and dance, including a few Porter songs I don’t recall ever hearing. They receive sterling support from onstage pianist Brian Baker, who is magically ready to accommodate their every whim (at one point, as the wee hours come and go, they discuss his overtime arrangements).

But the catch is that it gradually becomes clear that Walter (Marc Ginsburg) is in love with Alice (Jennifer Shelton), although hostess Dorothy (Lindsey Alley) has her own unexpressed yearning for Walter. Can this three-way friendship survive?

We never learn why these three are so tight to begin with, but who cares, as long as they express their current thoughts and feelings through more than 30 of Porter’s songs? Which they do, with admirable precision and grace. Todd Nielsen directed and choreorgraphed, with musical arrangements by co-conceiver Patrick Young and music supervision by Darryl Archibald.

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in "God of Carnage." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in “God of Carnage.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Speaking of misbehaving, La Mirada Theatre — a large theater, not a midsizer — has revived God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s surefire demonstration of how adults can engage in social carnage while ostensibly discussing how their children have misbehaved.

The director is Michael Arabian, and he has brought Hugo Armstrong, whom he directed in Waiting for Godot at the Taper, to play what may now be identified for a long time as “the James Gandolfini role”.  Armstrong is terrific, but so is Maura Vincent as his prodding wife, who initiated this disastrous session. Ditto for Jamison Jones, as the corporate lawyer whose incessant cell phone conversations drive everyone else crazy, and Amy Sloan as his wife, whose delicate digestive system is soon transcended by a indelicate impatience with just about everyone else in the room.

Let’s Misbehave, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 16. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. 562-436-4610.

God of Carnage, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 16. www.lamiradatheatre.com.  562-944-9801.