It seemed a natural. Tom Kempinski's "Duet for One" was doing turn-away business at the Back Alley theater in Van Nuys. At the present rate it looked as if it could go on for years.
Enter the producers from the Hollywood Playhouse & Cafe with an amicable deal to move the production to the Equity mid-size house. The actors were the same (Allan Miller and Linda Kelsey), the production values just as good. Nothing substantial had been changed about a play and performances that drew, on the whole, positive, sometimes glowing, comment.
What happened, then? "Duet for One" quickly became Blues in the Night. Nobody showed up. Not even the crowd on the Back Alley's waiting list.
"We had everything going for it," said Miller, who with Laura Zucker runs the Back Alley. "It seems like someone just turned off the faucet. We figured if we brought in just what we had at the Back Alley--93 people--we could still break even. It's a pretty theater, good to play in and our relationship with the management couldn't have been better. We don't know what the circumstances were. But we couldn't take a bath any longer." The show closed Sunday.
The Hollywood Playhouse's neighborhood may be one of the factors that kept "Duet for One" almost a literal description of what went on nightly during performance. The theater has beefed up security, and the LAPD is reportedly keeping a higher profile in the area (though news of a recent drug bust near the theater could not have been bracing for people dressing up for a night out).
"It (the premature closing) may mean that a theater has a specific identity and builds up a following that can't be transferred," Miller said, by way of conjecture. "Seventy to 75% of our audience is from the Valley, and they just don't want to drive into Hollywood. I think the absence of follow-up print material made a difference. Also, I still think, in the wake of the Olympics, which we considered an event, that the theater has yet to recover that sense of being an event."
It's business as usual at the Back Alley, however, where "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" is currently being reprised and Donald Driver's "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" opens June 27 with Rue McLanahan and John Anderson.
Beepers. Noisy late arrivals. Interminable sotto voce chat. People piling off to the restrooms during mid-performance because the line is shortest then. These are some of the irritants theatergoers have written in to report about their experiences in seeing a show, in a social climate where increasingly it seems that audiences forget they're an audience and not individuals flopped out at home before the TV set.
Sometimes they're bizarre. Your Stage Watch correspondent recalls an Equity-Waiver theater whose restroom consisted of a nearby alley. A theatergoer recently wrote complaining of an Equity production where no one was allowed to move forward into empty seats; those who did were charged the difference in seat price by the usher.
Stage Watch hereby welcomes readers to contribute their choicest anecdotes. The best stories will be repeated in this space next week. No prizes are guaranteed. Maybe a few tips on effective glowering and some ideas for cutting remarks will be offered instead. Suggestions in this area, too, are welcome.
Russell Vandenbroucke, literary manager and dramaturge for the Mark Taper Forum, will be leaving his post July 4 to take up an associate producing directorship at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
"Seven years at the Taper have been good to me, but it's time to move on," Vandenbroucke said recently. "I felt it was time to challenge myself in new ways." In addition to program notes, and of course, reading new plays and sitting in on the development of many of them, Vandenbroucke's most visible contribution locally was the development of the Sunday literary cabaret at the Itchey Foote restaurant.
"I'll remember Los Angeles as the city without weather and with the ocean on the wrong side (Vandenbroucke was born in Chicago). And I expect I'll be remembered as the backbone of the Taper basketball team."
Asked about the best and the worst of his experiences, he replied, "I'll let other people take credit for success and unsuccess, but 'Metamorphosis' and 'An American Comedy' are closest to my heart. And if (agent) Gil Parker talked to me first about staging 'Children of a Lesser God,' it's something I can't claim credit for. The worst? Doing the Neil Simon play ("I Ought to Be in Pictures") was not a lot of fun--I had trouble talking with my colleagues about doing this play."
Asked why literary managers tend to wind up in claustrophobic quarters, he said, "None of us get windows--we read so many plays that doubtless we'd make use of them. We don't get wastepaper baskets either."
Vandenbroucke's new book, "Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard," has recently been published by Theatre Communications Group.
LATE CUES: Murray Mednick's Coyote Cycle will play in its entirety at the Paramount Ranch July 16. . . . Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" will open the summer season of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum on June 16. "Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" joins the repertory in July, and the premiere of a musical on the life of Dory Previn called "Dory! A Musical Portrait" opens Aug. 16. The season runs through Sept. 21 at the Topanga Canyon amphitheater. On June 2, Julie Adams, Ned Beatty, David and Meredith Baxter Birney, Richard Dysart and Ellen Geer host the Botanicum's second Country Festival Fund Raiser, a daylong event with food, drink and entertainment. Information: (818) 399-3982. . . . David Kranes' "Salmon Run" and Dennis J. Reardon's "Steeple Jack" are co-winners of this year's National Repertory Theatre's annual playwrights award, which now is up to $12,500. . . . Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard and John Amos head the cast of "Split Second," Dennis McIntyre's play about a black police officer, which opens June 18 at the New Mayfair Theatre. . . . Auditions for the National Youth Theatre, in which young performers from Britain and the United States work together in full productions, will be held 10 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Wadsworth Theater on the VA Hospital grounds. Productions this summer include two British imports, "Good Lads at Heart" and "Zigger Zagger," and local productions of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "As You Like It." "Zigger Zagger" requires skills in singing, as does "Joseph." Auditioners for "As You Like It" should come prepared to do Shakespeare. There's a membership fee of $25 for those selected, and scholarships are available. Information: (213) 657-3270.