About some young playwrights, you think: If they only had a brain. At 25, Jon Robin Baitz does. Even when his characters in "The Film Society" are talking rot--as they frequently are, being white educators in South Africa--it's reasoned rot. What a pleasure to hear full sentences on the stage!
And how well Robert Egan's actors at the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre speak them. It's easy to imagine yourself in a London theater watching the kind of play that Americans just don't know how to write. Baitz is clearly one American who does.
It doesn't hurt that he spent six years of his childhood in South Africa, some of them in a school reminiscent of the one in the play. Interestingly, we never see the boys in the school or the black servants who keep the place running. Baitz concentrates on the administration.
Again, the strategy is British. Rather than protest a social condition, examine the people who maintain it. Even there, one needn't be direct. The part reveals the whole. Show how a headmaster in Durban (William Glover) keeps his faculty in line, and you've shown something about how the government keeps the populace in line.
The approach also forces the playwright to be specific. Baitz's Blenheim School is obviously a metaphor for white South Africa, the British part, at least. But it's also a world of its own, with its own unforgettable characters. Alan Mandell, for instance, plays a cancer-ridden disciplinarian who finds the new fiberglass canes less effective in dealing with the boys than the traditional wooden ones.
Yet this zany truly believes that he's keeping the forces of darkness (read: blackness) from swallowing civilization (read: whiteness). Glover as the headmaster is more of a cynic, but he, too, went into education with an eye to improving his country. Even Marrian Walters--the rich woman who can make or break the school--must have had some good intentions at the beginning.
Now her only thought is to make her bumbling son (Daniel Davis) into a headmaster. His main enthusiasm as the play opens is showing American movies to the boys, usually not the titles he ordered. But by the end he has achieved the requisite monsterhood, partly by default, partly by will. Davis shows us the cost of this, but also the payoff. Why do nice people become monsters in closed societies? Because a rat feels more alive than a mouse.
Derek Jacobi would kill for this role, and may one day play it--it wouldn't be a surprise if "The Film Society" did get a West End production. But Jacobi wouldn't get any more out of the part than Davis does. At the beginning, his character is as soft and shapeless as a pillow. At the end he's pure stone. It's a major performance from a major (from now on) actor.
Kate Mulgrew joined the cast late and falls into some stock postures now and then: the brave chin, the articulate back. But she does a smashing job with her big speech to her students about the distance between the real world and the all-white world that their parents are trying to sustain. (It's a play of big speeches, and this cast tears into them.) Henry Woronicz plays Mulgrew's radical husband, a character Baitz could afford to explore more fully.
That's one shortfall in the "The Film Society," and there are some plot loopholes that would be more apparent with a less assured cast. (Marrian Walters could make anything sound plausible.) A larger objection might be that it's a British play manque-- a fake import, designed to get the "Masterpiece Theatre" crowd away from the telly.
Certainly the dialogue is miles away from Baitz's first play, "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," a gritty examination of the Hollywood buy-and-sell syndrome. But since its characters are British (even super-British, in the colonial manner), why shouldn't they talk that way?
If the play's a fake, it's a convincing one. This is an articulate drama that deals directly with issues that sentimental American playwrights don't want to get into, such as the fact that in the real world somebody does, in fact, have to be the boss. Baitz's interest in systems and how they work won't end with this play.
Meanwhile, "The Film Society" offers a rattling good evening in the theater. The evening begins with a silent contemplation of D. Martyn Bookwalter's set, presenting Blenheim School as a calm, ivy-clad edifice dedicated to truth and reason. Between semesters, perhaps.
'THE FILM SOCIETY'
Jon Robin Baitz's play, part of the AT & T Performing Arts Festival at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Robert Egan. Producer Diane White. Set Martyn D. Bookwalter. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Costumes Robert Blackman. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Original music Daniel Birnbaum. Stage manager James T. McDermott. With Daniel Davis, Kate Mulgrew, Marrian Walters, Henry Woronicz, Alan Mandell. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Feb. 22. Tickets $10 to $22. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-6500.