Theater pulses in Alan Mandell's veins

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
San Francisco, New York and L.A., L.A., L.A. The long and varied career of Alan Mandell

Seated in the living room of his newly built architectural jewel of a home in Westwood, Alan Mandell had a confession to make.

He was nervous about taking on the role of the elderly Gregory Solomon in the revival of Arthur Miller's "The Price" that opens Feb. 21 at the Mark Taper Forum. And not, he quietly told me, because this is likely to be his final stage performance.

"The character I play is 89," Mandell explained. "I'm two years shy of this. I thought, 'Can I play two years older? Do they have a good makeup person?'"

His eyes twinkled impishly. There's a frolicsome youthfulness to Mandell's demeanor — tap dancing is how he keeps fit — and when he succumbs to laughter, the years melt away.

Time is similarly thrown into abeyance when he acts. He played the shabby yet still spry Spooner in the 2009 revival of Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" at the Odyssey Theatre. And as Estragon in the Taper's 2012 production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," he kicked up his heels in the absurdist wasteland with the Vladimir of Barry McGovern, an actor and friend two decades his junior.

Aging up hasn't been a problem either. As a stripling in his late 70s, he shambled convincingly as the 87-year-old Firs in the Taper's 2006 revival of "The Cherry Orchard." The following year he created one of his most indelible portraits, the crotchety octogenarian judge in Joanna McClelland Glass' "Trying" at the Colony Theatre.

What's surprising about this list is that it is identical to the one he provided when I asked him to name the highlights of his long — make that very long — stage career.

Artists who come into their prime in their golden years, such as novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, usually either start late or get interrupted along the way. Mandell, by contrast, has unswervingly dedicated himself to the stage since performing in "Oliver Twist" as a schoolboy in Toronto.

Stardom was never the pursuit. He readily acknowledges that applause intoxicates him as much as any performer and that awards are a great boost. But he understood early on that an actor's contribution is most meaningful when part of a larger vision. His ambition was to belong to the theater.

In grade school he was the pupil always called upon when there was reciting to be done. It's easy to imagine what captivated his teachers. Listening to Mandell's refined diction is like reading a handwritten letter by someone with the most marvelous penmanship.

His parents were restaurant proprietors. The family lived above the business, which had a confectionery store attached. Gumdrops and licorice boosted Mandell's popularity with the neighborhood kids, but the stage was where he felt most alive and where he hoped his future would be.

"It was all right with my mother but not my father," Mandell said. "He thought this was some kind of hobby and then you did something serious with your life. Obviously, having gone through the Depression, you didn't become an actor. You became a lawyer or doctor, the usual choices of any good Jewish boy."

A British acting teacher at Mandell's school wanted to take him back to England with her for intensive training, but his parents refused to allow their 10-year-old to leave home. ("I would have loved it," he exclaimed.) But his destiny was not to be thwarted.

Whatever theatrical organization he got mixed up with, he quickly became an integral player. While a fledgling actor in Canada, he stepped in as artistic director of a newly formed company when the existing artistic director fell ill.

But his real break came on a trip to San Francisco in 1954. While visiting his sister, he asked if there was a place where he could work on scenes with other actors. He was dropped off at the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, the future West Coast powerhouse that at the time was housed in a converted garage.

Nobody was on the premises. The phone kept ringing. Eventually he answered it and started taking down the names and numbers of callers who wanted tickets to Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." He saw that the desk was a mess, so while waiting for someone to appear he figured he'd straighten things up. When a member of the staff finally arrived on the scene, he was asked to substitute for the volunteer who couldn't make it that day.

A one-week trip turned into a months-long stay, ending only when his visitor's visa was up. But by this time he had become indispensable to Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, who were turning the San Francisco Actor's Workshop into a world-class theater in which plays by Brecht, Beckett and Pinter would receive their West Coast and sometimes American premieres.

Mandell went home to Canada to earn enough money so that he could return for good ("You had to demonstrate that you wouldn't become a ward of the state"). Eventually he made his way back to the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, where he was appointed business manager. He slept on a cot in the office, ate whatever food was left for him and served not only as an administrator but as a general understudy and right-hand man.

"If the phone rang at 4 in the morning, 'Hello, Actor's Workshop,'" Mandell said, enacting his dogsbody role with affection. "I was always on duty, taking reservations, auditioning people, helping to paint sets, searching for scripts, sewing costumes. It was more than acting. It was a life in the theater.

"I always believed in earning a living," Mandell said when asked how he acquired his talent for management. "I had worked in several places in Toronto, and while I wasn't an accountant, I could add a group of figures."

The business end of the negotiations fell to him, but it was the artistic vision that captivated him: "I remember Herb Blau saying, 'You have to stay because I think we could make this one of the most important theaters in the world.' He wasn't talking just about California. He used to show us on the map — 'Here we are in San Francisco, and here's New York, London, Paris, Moscow. This whole world is available to you, and this is what you are part of.'"

While at the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, Mandell co-founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop with Rick Cluchey. Beckett was a staple of their work together, and it was through Cluchey that Mandell developed a relationship with the Irish author, who directed him in "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame" in Europe. "The text for him was like a score, and the important thing for us was to find the rhythm of the line," Mandell said when asked about Beckett's direction. "Once you had that, you were set."

Mandell has given his theater papers to UCLA, but memorabilia of his friendship with Beckett lurks in the private corridors of Mandell's home, which has enough art to fill a small museum: ceramic statues, fiber objects, a Vuillard painting — a dazzling trove from the collection acquired by his late wife, Elizabeth Heller Mandell, an arts patron who once owned the Mandell Gallery in Los Angeles. He no longer sleeps on a cot. His house, designed with the same intelligent precision that marks his acting, is like the elegant toy shop of some cheerful Post-Impressionist.

Los Angeles has been his home since the mid-1970s. After spending a few years in New York with Blau and Irving when they ran the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center — Mandell was their general manager — he came to L.A. to do a TV movie remake of "Dark Victory" starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Anthony Hopkins. Hollywood drew him, but he couldn't resist the siren call of L.A. theater.

Realizing that time is precious and that acting is his first love, he decided, however, to take his wife's advice and limit his administrative involvement to the role of consulting director, a title he held at both the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where he inaugurated the Poetry Literary Series. This was during a renaissance of envelope-pushing theater in L.A. that naturally included much Beckett.

Mandell's interest in "The Price" was sparked by his ongoing work with the Antaeus Company. Cameron Watson, who directed Mandell in "Trying," led a reading of the play in 2013 with Antaeus actors at Mandell's house. So when Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie called to see if Mandell had anything on his wish list, the Miller play came up.

"Michael said that he always liked the play and would be interested in doing it," Mandell said. "But I said you'll have to have Kate Burton play the wife. And he said, 'Why do you keep pushing my wife at me?,' and I said, 'Because she's this terrific actress, and you hardly ever use her.' Not long after that he called and said, 'Would you like to do it at the Taper?' And I said, 'With Kate, it would be fine.'"

Burton is indeed in the production, which is being presented in honor of Miller's centennial. Garry Hynes, the Tony-wining Irish director, is staging this 1968 drama, in which Mandell plays a nearly 90-year-old antiques dealer with a Russian-Yiddish accent who is called upon to appraise the inheritance of two brothers (played by John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards) battling over the value of their relationships and sacrifices.

The role of Solomon connects Mandell with relatives from his past, an uncle through marriage in particular, who spoke with a similar inflection. It's one of the few major older parts that he hasn't already played. But is there really nothing left in the repertoire to entice him back?

"I did King Lear and Prospero and Shylock, along with numerous other Shakespearean plays, but those are the ones I really wanted to do," Mandell said pensively. "Had I been younger I would have wanted to do Hamlet. My son thinks it's wonderful that I'm still out there working. But it's just harder and harder."

Physically?

"No, the challenge is giving your whole self over to a character," he said. "I've been doing that for so long now. I can say it was easier when I was 85."

Perhaps Watson, who wrote to me of Mandell's "total and unfiltered openness and accessibility" as an actor, might consider luring him back for a formal stage reading of "Hamlet" after he's rested from his labors in the "The Price." If Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones can star as Beatrice and Benedick, how about Mandell and his great chum Charlotte Rae giving Hamlet and Ophelia a turn? No press comps for me — I'm buying.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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