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GOBBLE, GOBBLE, UGH, UGH : L.A. Theater Is Cackling Less This Season

Thanksgiving. The thought of one turkey leads to another for this observer, and as far as Los Angeles theater is concerned, there are always a few barnyard cackles to recall, though it seems there are fewer this year than usual.

A cautionary chill has crept into the boards.

The Olympic Arts Festival pointed out the hollowness of a lot of our crowing about what a great theater town Los Angeles has become. Dorothy Parker has a line about “confusing the first rate with the fecund rate,” and if artists didn’t catch on, audiences did--the three or four months that followed the Olympics were deadly, as far as audience attendance is concerned.

Things have picked up lately--imagine being able to see Rex Harrison, Claudette Colbert, Liv Ullmann, Harold Pinter, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, all in the space of a month. And that may make us feel a little better about savoring a few clucks.

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In no special order, then:

The-Drumstick-Over-the-Head-Award: To any performer who gushes in a pre-opening interview, “This is really an ensemble effort. There are no egos in this production.”

This-Year’s-Go-Sit-With-the-Kids-Request: To any actor who lists high in his or her program credits episodic or bit appearances in TV shows and commercials (one press release recently cited a performer’s part in a Chevron commercial). TV and commercial appearances do not authenticate stage skills. In fact, to the knowledgeable theatergoer, such mention sends up a small alarm in the back brain that says, “Look out.” The performance demands of TV and the theater are substantially different (remember how lost and demeaned Cassie in “A Chorus Line” felt at having to make a toilet paper commercial?) The note is a clue that the actor may not know the difference, and that we may well have to suffer that absence of distinction in his performance.

Promises-We’d-Just-as-Soon-You-Hadn’t-Remembered: Elizabeth Swados wrote on a cocktail napkin that “I will do a play for you,” which Gordon Davidson kept, and called in. The result was the Mark Taper Forum production of “The Beautiful Lady,” which purportedly dealt with the lives and works of some of Russia’s poets of the early 20th Century, but which turned out to be neither poetic, beautiful, convincing, or even very Russian. If one didn’t know better, one might assume that the Bolshevik Revolution had been inspired by audience indignation.

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Who-Invited-You? TransAfrica, Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, and the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, a trio of ad-hoc watchdog groups, convened this year to warn artists that if they were to visit South Africa to perform, they would, in the words of Harry Belafonte (co-chairman of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid) “pay a heavy price.” Nobody here wants to question the repugnance of apartheid, but isn’t communication one of the artist’s functions in life? And isn’t it conceivable that a visiting artist might communicate a sense of solidarity with a nation of disenfranchised blacks, and thereby help matters?

“An extra-territorial agency whom no one appointed or elected convenes to impose its morality on other people,” is how a colleague described this coalition. And when one of the primary boycott spokesmen used the word “recant,” one wondered whose ring you had to kiss to get off their proposed blacklist.

Empty-Calories Award: To J. Bunzel’s “Delirious,” a “today” play about young people and cocaine whose superb production values by the L.A. Stage Co. glossed over its retrograde ‘50s cliches about crazy-mixed-up-kids. It was a hit at the Pilot. Young show-bizzy audiences loved its drug-rush rhythms and didn’t mind at all its banal mix of sentimentality and social anarchy. It was the perfect mirror for a milieu which, in Mort Sahl’s words, “isn’t as anxious about selling out as it is about buying in.”

You-Go-Out-and-Play-I’d-Prefer-Just-to-Sit-and-Get-Quietly-Sozzled: City Stage mounted a quartet of plays by Samuel Beckett over the summer that fell into every trap of relentless Beckettian gloom and recalled Shakespeare’s line: “This would last out a night in Russia, where nights are longest.” No wonder we’re still waiting for Godot. He’s got too much sense.

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mol-Award-for-Gastritis-Indigestion-and-General-Dysfunction-of-the-System: To the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, which after 16 years still can’t get its act together. The group remains hamstrung by a peculiar voting and awards system that would mystify a Byzantine potentate, but whose results mean that an awards category can have three winners out of four nominees, or it can have a single nominee, with no competition, who doesn’t win anyway.

This year’s awards ceremony wasn’t exactly an “A” party either. A large audience was kept from dinner for three hours watching a threadbare tribute to the Broadway musical interspersed with the self-congratulatory gush of awards winners whom sumo wrestlers couldn’t pull from the mike. You could hear stomachs growling in protest. Ideally, the critic gives his opinion in the name of an imagined excellence. What kind of credibility can this group of judges have, when it can’t treat its own effort with at least some of the discernment it attempts in judging the work of others?

“Erp”: The owners and producers of the Tiffany Theatre, after having spent a considerable sum refurbishing the theater, decided to challenge the Actors Equity rule which says that even though you have a 99-seat space, you can’t stage plays under an Equity Waiver clearance when the house was built to seat more. Under the 99-seat ruling, a producer is not obliged to pay actors. The Tiffany won a court injunction, but in the eyes of the community it had to seriously weaken its case when, as an observer noted, “with the money (the Tiffany) spent in litigation, you could have paid the actors and fed one-half of Ethiopia.” Two execrable productions, one of Harry Essex’s “Fatty” and the other of Maugham’s “Rain,” haven’t helped either.

Grand-Gobbler-of-the-Year-Award: To Brian Alfred Murphy and BAM Construction Design Co. for its desecration of the Huntington Hartford Theatre, now the James A. Doolittle Theatre, but by any other name still the finest proscenium house in Los Angeles. No one responsible for the change seems to mind that high tech is to the ‘80s what wrought iron and suburban lawn flamingos were to the ‘50s, but high tech is nonetheless what has been superimposed on a building that has exuded a more traditional grace and now looks badly dressed. Richard Koshalek, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, lauds the sight of “the theater’s underwear” and how “its bones show,” which is rather like carrying X-rays of your loved ones in your wallet.

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The Times’ architecture critic Sam Hall Kaplan had a different reaction. Said Kaplan, “The high tech facade is not exposure, it’s dishonest decoration. The design is not expressive of the building. The sign is too high, the marquee is not lit and the stripping and the cladding make it look like a poor mimic of the entrance of the Los Angeles Theatre Center. If the building were a play, I’d walk out after the first act.”

So long, kids. Hey Sam, wait for me!


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