Arts & Entertainment

Stephen Eich, former managing director of the Geffen Playhouse

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He will likely never steal the title from Johnny Cash -- but during eight years as managing director of Geffen Playhouse, Stephen Eich was always the theater's unofficial "Man in Black."

Chatting up patrons in the lobby on opening nights, Eich's monochromatic fashion statement was perhaps more distinctive because he stands 6 feet 1 and weighs 220 pounds.

Eich's larger-than-life presence made it all the more noticeable when he vanished from the lobby scene after leaving his job at the Geffen last June.

"I am not somebody who is overly comfortable with fashion, and I came to the conclusion years ago that if I simply wore black, I was dressed for the evening," says Eich, who confesses he favors black pants and shirt -- jacket optional. "There is no great mystery to this."

Eich, 53, also insists there is no mystery to his departure from the Geffen. Eich, formerly managing director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, still wears black, still lives in L.A. and is "keeping busy" in the world of theater.

His latest project: partnering with Don Foster, a writer and producer on the CBS comedy "Two and a Half Men," to produce the new play "Rantoul and Die, A Romantic Comedy Wrapped in Razor Wire," written by another "Two and a Half Men" veteran, writer and executive producer Mark Roberts. The show opens May 16 at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood. Set in Rantoul, Ill., "Rantoul and Die" is a dark comedy in two acts about a desperate man trying to hang onto a marriage that the playwright says "has reached its expiration date. In fact, it's soured and stuck to the bottom of the carton."

"There were a lot of rumors in regard to me leaving the Geffen," Eich said in a recent conversation at the Hollywood home he shares with wife Maureen, who works in advertising, and their two rescue dogs, Grace and Gnasher. "I heard rumors that I was in fact tired, when I wasn't in fact tired."

Eich is blunt, however, about having tired of the Geffen. "I'm very friendly with Gil, and Gil is a good guy," he says, referring to Geffen producing director Gil Cates. "But in this climate, arts organizations need to be absolutely on top of it, in regard to their long-range planning, play selection and a true understanding of their audience, and that was not happening for me."

Eich believes that Cates was within his rights to ask that he and Geffen artistic director Randall Arney, another Steppenwolf veteran, defer to Cates on programming and marketing decisions; he just didn't want to do it anymore.

"I couldn't just be a clerk," he says. "You can't be a managing director and just be reactive to decisions that were brought down and put on my desk.

"I think I even said it to Gil -- it was like riding a bicycle and someone was holding the tire. After a while, you do get fatigued with that. But not with theater, not with the business."

Arney declined to comment on Eich. And Cates describes their relationship as amicable: "I just love the guy and wish him well," he says.

In fact, Eich's first major project after leaving the Geffen was to partner with Jonathan Reinis Productions to shepherd the first Geffen-commissioned and produced play, Jane Anderson's "The Quality of Life," presented in 2007, to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater for its 2008-09 season. Had there not existed mutual respect, Cates says, "We wouldn't have given him our baby."

Eich's longtime colleague, Albert Poland, who recently retired from a career as general manager of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, offers his take on the reason the Geffen was a bad fit for Eich: "He is a 'first,' if you understand -- he is the top person," says Poland, who worked with Eich on the 1990 Tony Award winner for best play, "The Grapes of Wrath," which originated at Steppenwolf, and Steve Martin's popular "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."

Continues Poland: "I am a 'second,' I am the person behind the force. But he is a first, and that was an inherent conceptual problem of his job description at Geffen."

Although Eich's long-term future remains undecided, he says his goal is to be involved with projects or institutions where there is "a responsible and constructive collaboration."

Included in that category is "Rantoul and Die," set in the town of Rantoul, Ill., a play Eich describes as a "little slice of white-trash life." The show's team has strong Steppenwolf ties: As an Illinois native, playwright Roberts attended Steppenwolf productions, and producer Foster's girlfriend, Erin Quigley, who is directing the show, was a resident costumer for Steppenwolf for more than a decade.

But a Steppenwolf-style theater ensemble is hard to realize in L.A., Eich says; in contrast to life in Chicago, there's been an ongoing frustration that has nothing to do with Geffen management. Besides the constant threat of losing the best actors to Hollywood, "Whether we like it or not, we have car issues," Eich says. "The important thing becomes: 'How do I get there, and where do I park?' "

diane.haithman@latimes.com

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