Michael Ritchies first year guiding Center Theatre Group reflects an eye for hits, a weakness for big names, and the slips of a leader attempting too much alone.
'DEAD END': Michael Ritchie began his tenure by flooding the Ahmansons 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)
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.
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.
The production — directed by Nicholas Martin and featuring an ensemble of 40-plus actors, many of them students at USC permitted to perform via special arrangement with Actors' Equity — couldn't disguise the play's mustiness.
It was also a missed opportunity. A noteworthy aspect of the Broadway premiere was the casting of kids from New York's rough and tumble boys' clubs. Well intentioned as it was for the Ahmanson's production to bring in undergrads from one of the city's private universities, a more resonant move would have sought young actors from L.A.'s poorer communities. This could have enhanced the relevance of Kingsley's critique while demonstrating Ritchie's commitment to expanding CTG's audience by breaking down cultural barriers that, along with expensive ticket prices, tend to keep theater audiences affluent and white.
In the wake of Ritchie's controversial decision to disband the Taper Labs for Asian, Latino, black and disabled writers, a gesture of true outreach would have been especially welcome. It might have even quelled doubts about the place of diversity in his programming, which have hung over his inaugural season like never-ending June-gloom cloud cover.
Ritchie's argument for doing away with the play programs was that they weren't bearing fruit for production. His vision, articulated in the strategic plan for the newly formed New Play Production Program, which he devised with the program's director, Diane Rodriguez, shifts the institutional focus from play development to play production.
The notion here is that writers have had their new plays mentored to death by institutional theaters that weren't always committed to producing them. "Development hell" is the lingo used by insiders who understand the ways literary offices can become a bureaucratic hamster-wheel of meetings, readings and workshops that only occasionally lead to full-scale productions.
Ritchie has expressed his distaste for the whole convoluted process. His approach, as he and his colleagues have informally characterized it, is to pick up the phone and ask a David Mamet if he has anything new — a simplified, top-down administrative style that privileges enshrined over emerging artists. Is it any wonder theater audiences are growing grayer and grayer?
No one would have much of a problem if the results were lively. But a few offerings at the Taper last season left me wondering whether anyone was minding the dramaturgical store.
Robert Schenkkan's "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," to take the most tedious example, was a play that would have benefited from a longer stay in development hell, if only to point out the shortsightedness of more or less guaranteeing a slot to a playwright on the merit of his previous triumph. Did the author's Pulitzer for "The Kentucky Cycle" completely blind the artistic staff to the new work's paltry return of theatrical pleasure?
Matching a well-known playwright with a well-known star has proved a winning formula for Ritchie in the past — and it's surely one of the talents, along with an aptitude for fundraising, that sold CTG's board members on his appointment. But this season the Hollywood magic hasn't always worked.
Laurence Fishburne wasn't well served by Alfred Uhry's humdrum "Without Walls," a half-baked dramatic essay about a black acting teacher and the manipulative high school brats he teaches at a progressive Manhattan private school. If Uhry hadn't had so much success with "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" there seems little chance that his latest would have been produced on this scale.
David Greig's "Pyrenees," the final offering of the Douglas season, wasted the ripe talent of Frances Conroy. A plodding exercise in elementary existentialism, the play was, to put it kindly, a major head-scratcher.
Surely any of the dismissed Taper Lab playwrights could have bored the Douglas' audience just as effectively as Greig — with the compensation that they were local artists with a stake in the community rather than a British writer who has received his share of support at home.
"Nighthawks," the disastrous play inspired by the Edward Hopper painting that recently opened the Douglas fall season, signals a further slackening in critical standards. What was the thinking behind this embarrassment? Ritchie explains in a program note that he read it with "high expectations" after receiving an enthusiastic endorsement by his literary manager, whom he had inherited from Davidson's regime.
Where help is needed
CLEARLY Ritchie needs to beef up his artistic staff. Perhaps budget cuts are preventing him from making hires in the literary and artistic areas (the bloodletting continues at CTG headquarters, with longtime casting director Amy Lieberman the latest victim). But the job is too demanding, too unwieldy and too important for him not to bring in fresh personnel.
John Glore, the veteran dramaturge, resigned last year to return to South Coast Repertory, whose new-play development program is nationally renowned. Rodriguez, whose résumé lists at the top "producer, director, actor and writer," doesn't have Glore's track record. Valuable as she is by all reports, her appointment (more accurately, reassignment) suggests to some that Ritchie isn't keen on sharing the backstage bill with those who have experience in shepherding new work at this level.
This is especially disconcerting because the Douglas in particular cries out for curatorial rescue. Ritchie's idea of presenting productions here by other L.A. theater companies seems at this point like a desperate measure to fill an unwieldy bill.
What's needed is someone who can reconfigure the small yet un-intimate space and who can stoke an audience's appetite for innovation and adventure, perhaps through the reinstatement of some version of the New Work Festival.
CTG's impressive legacy stems from being at the forefront of theatrical discovery. After all, it was under Davidson that Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, Jon Robin Baitz, August Wilson and Lisa Loomer were all embraced relatively early in their careers.
The creative reaching out now — to writers such as Mamet, David Henry Hwang and actress-turned-playwright Lynn Redgrave — seems geared to familiar names. Certainly there would be no problem with more Mamet or Hwang if the programming showed more commitment to cultivating the next Mamet or Hwang.
The Taper built its reputation on little-known playwrights, but there's not much in the new season that can be characterized as a Ritchie discovery. The theater should be in the business of nurturing original material rather than shopping for it.
An encouraging example is "13," Dan Elish and Jason Robert Brown's new musical written for a cast of young teens and grappling with their adolescent concerns. Regardless of whether the show proves a success, it at least has the advantage of being homegrown. But how much can a theater, even a megalith like CTG, reasonably expect to produce each year from scratch?
This season's co-production with Deaf West Theatre Company of "Sleeping Beauty Wakes" at the Douglas may provide a clue. There have got to be other exciting nonprofits out there willing to pool resources for projects of ambitious scope. The Ahmanson audience deserves better than a menu of mostly 2-year-old Broadway pickings, and a nonprofit shouldn't be run like a higher-brow Pantages.
As one of the most powerful theatrical institutions in the country and a nexus of the L.A. theater community, CTG has an enormous amount of cultural capital. Ritchie has the ingenuity to expand it during his tenure.
But no one could possibly do it alone. And no single sensibility ought to be allowed to try.