What's in a name? In the theater, plenty.
Towards the end of his glowing notice of "Penn & Teller," the comedy-magic act, which opened recently at the Westside Arts Center in Manhattan, New York Times Stage Critic Frank Rich noted: "What we don't learn about these self-described 'eccentric guys' is exactly where they've come from. The Showbill is reticent on the subject, and, by evening's end, all we really know for sure is that the team has been playing around the country for more than a decade or so."
You know where they came from, or at least where they made their most prominent recent stop--the Los Angeles Stage Co.
Is the program omission the latest example of New York's tight-little-island mentality, which has been so xenophobic that mere mention of Los Angeles is violently shunned lest some kind of Santa Ana crud form on the lip? (Critic John Simon, in fact, has gone so far as to mention that a Los Angeles genesis is a foolproof sign of a production's execrable quality.)
Susan Dietz, who runs the L.A. Stage Co., thinks it is, and has taken it as a personal snub on the part of New York producer Richard Frankel, who is producing the Penn & Teller show, and has circulated a letter of complaint, calling Frankel "paranoid and egocentric."
Frankel, in response, thinks it isn't, and calls Dietz, "unreasonable." Thereby lies a bitter breach between one-time friends and colleagues.
At issue is title-page mention of the fact that the production New York is now solidly enjoying is the one that played at the L.A. Stage Co. Dietz wanted the credit on the New York Playbill's title page.
"I first discovered Penn & Teller in San Francisco about six years ago, only then they were part of a trio called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society," she said. "Their work was more collegiate then, not as thematic as it is now. But they were very popular. I wanted to book the group, but it broke up when the third member, Weir Chrysamer, quit.
"They put this show together and played in Minneapolis. When 'Sister Mary' went into the toilet, I put them in ahead of 'Translations' and lost $80,000. They played a disco in Westwood. That was a disaster. I found the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks for them where word of mouth about them began to build up."
Her letter takes up from there. "We believe in them so much," she writes, "that we brought them back after enormous financial losses the first time. . . . It is incredibly disturbing to me to be ignored so blatantly by a New York producer who knows full well the nurturing and support we have given this show, but who is either too paranoid to admit that the show has L.A. roots or too egocentric to acknowledge that anyone else has anything to do with it."
In response, Frankel said: "If the L.A. Stage Co. is the originating company, Penn & Teller ought to know about it. The fact is that no one has a proprietary right over their show. It's theirs, and no more belongs to Susan Dietz than it does to me. Neither of us get subsidiary rights, or TV rights, or any other rights. We're just a stop on the way.
"Only in the instance where the original producer enters into an agreement with the present producer to move a production, say, from the Circle Rep to Broadway, does a title-page credit apply. I brought in a new director and a set and lighting designer. The Los Angeles production is not the originating production for this show. I was still willing to credit the L.A. Stage Co. and Susan Dietz on the Playbill behind the bios, where it's customary in these instances.
"What disturbs me even more is that earlier she'd called and asked if we'd hold off bringing Penn & Teller to New York in February. She said she'd lose the theater. She offered a royalty of $250 a week, and only after our new director rehearsed them in L.A. did she say she would charge us $15 an hour for rehearsal time. Is that any way to do business? When I tried to call her, she wouldn't return my calls. I don't think there's anything lower."
"It's less a blow for me than it is for L.A. theater," Dietz said.
Replies Frankel: "We took out a quarter-page ad in Variety congratulating Penn & Teller for winning their Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. Is this hiding L.A.? She makes an unreasonable demand, then invents a bill. What's my obligation to her?"
Fortunately, none of this squabbling affects the show, where nightly Mufu the Gorilla smiles on.
LATE CUES: Kim Cattrell, Gerald Hiken, Elizabeth McGovern, Ron Rifkin, Jean Smart, Stephen Tobolowski and Leslie Ann Warren will be in the cast of the Los Angeles Theatre Center's coming production of "The Three Sisters." . . . Robert Wilson, composer Philip Glass, painter David Hockney and film director Jonathan Demme will take part in a UCLA symposium called "Intermedia Art: The Era of Interdisciplinary Collaboration" on May 12, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. New York Times Music Critic John Rockwell will moderate the panel discussion. For further information, call 825-1901. The fee is $55.