'Dead End'

'DEAD END': Michael Ritchie began his tenure by flooding the Ahmanson’s orchestra pit to create the East River setting for a 1935 social-realist drama. “'Dead End’ is everything I love about theater in one package,” he wrote at the time. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)

NO one said it was going to be easy. But with his first season behind him and his second already underway, Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie has yet to communicate a clear theatrical game plan.

Questions concerning his artistic vision for the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas — three unique spaces demanding customized leadership — are mounting.

Having begun with a promise to make the Ahmanson more a showcase for world premieres, he's backed off in the new season with a lineup mostly of touring Broadway shows.

As for his two other spaces, the message has been murky. Beyond his penchant for pairing well-known stars with well-known playwrights, he hasn't given us much sense of his mission for the Taper — a theater that has historically been one of the most important launching pads for new plays in the country.

And let's just say that if the Douglas were a child, it would inevitably end up in long-term therapy after this last year of neglect.

Naturally, it will take Ritchie time to put his stamp on a theater whose founder, Gordon Davidson, was a figure comparable only to the Public Theater's Joe Papp in his drive, stature and hands-on personality. Ritchie doesn't have the same titanic presence. What's troubling, however, is that he seems to be emulating the megalomaniac, go-it-alone style that often left these two theatrical pioneers alienated and embattled.

The task of running a behemoth like CTG requires not just an army of workers to get the shows up and running but also a select group with the acumen and boldness to guide the theater into a new era. A brain trust, if you will, that's collectively smarter than the top boss.

The only major artistic hire Ritchie has made is associate producer Kelley Kirkpatrick. In fairness, Ritchie has arrived at a downsizing moment brought on by CTG's $3-million deficit and a less generous funding climate. But his reluctance to share his post — which is too big for any one person to handle — with those having the experience to give them real institutional authority has led to productions and policies that seem more reactive than proactive.

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The glittering successes

RITCHIE has had his share of early successes. The much buzzed-about Taper production of "The Cherry Orchard" with Annette Bening and Alfred Molina raised a Chekhov revival to the level of a stirring cultural event.

It was a coup for him to lure "The Drowsy Chaperone" for a pre-Broadway tryout at the Ahmanson before it went on to snare five Tony Awards. "Curtains," the new John Kander-Fred Ebb musical whodunit that had its world premiere in August, looks set to repeat the West Coast-to-East Coast hit-making flow.

Yet nothing brings prestige to a theater like a new play or musical that has been fostered by a theater's artistic staff. And it's this aspect of his programming that threatens to be a weakness for Ritchie, whose approach has consisted largely of invitations to the already established to produce (keep your fingers crossed) more of the awardwinning same.

His background doesn't exactly assure us that there's more up his sleeve. A stage manager turned impresario, Ritchie came to CTG from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, a summer repertory company that was reinvigorated by his talent for drawing actors with Hollywood cachet (Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris O'Donnell, Marisa Tomei) to dramas by old masters.

He also took advantage of Williamstown's actor training program to produce big-cast offerings that would have broken the bank of most professional houses. New work was a part of the Williamstown mix, but it wasn't what raised the theater's profile under his leadership.

Encouragingly, Ritchie set out to produce more pre-Broadway work at the Ahmanson, long a destination for touring musicals. "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Curtains" made good on the plan, but what's being offered this season is a return to the post-Broadway status quo.

The lineup — which includes "Doubt," "The Light in the Piazza," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Twelve Angry Men," as well as one West End bonus, the dance musical "Edward Scissorhands" — demonstrates taste and discrimination. But there are no new musicals now that "Jersey Boys" has come in to replace Berry Gordy's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." And for all the hype about world premieres, there's nothing to distinguish Ritchie's Ahmanson from the Ahmanson of yore.

The about-face stems from financial imperatives and a short supply of artistic goods. But there were a few missteps along the way that contributed to a more conservative producing atmosphere. These included an over-expensive debut with "Dead End," a lackluster staging of "The Importance of Being Earnest" and an ineptly handled gamble involving Robert Wilson's "The Black Rider," which had the theater's subscribers leaving in droves.

Ritchie described "Dead End," Sidney Kingsley's 1935 social-realist drama confronting the proximity — and distance — of the rich and poor on New York's East Side, as representing his ideal of theater. (" 'Dead End' is everything I love about theater in one package," he wrote in a program note.) It was a strange remark, not least because the revival's only splash came courtesy of the pool of chlorinated water expensively installed to transform the Ahmanson's orchestra pit into the East River.