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Fryer’s Finale: A Milestone at the Ahmanson

Times Arts Editor

A few days ago in London, Robert Fryer firmed up the final production for the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre’s 1988-89 season. It will, as had been speculated, be Tom Stoppard’s dazzling mystery “Hapgood,” a London hit which variously involves quantum physics, international paranoia and twins.

Stoppard, who is doing rewrites on the play (which viewers found mysterious, even as mysteries go), will be on hand throughout the rehearsals. It will be directed by Peter Wood, who is also directing the Ahmanson’s first offering, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

The setting-up of “Hapgood” is a milestone in several ways. The announcement is nicely, if accidentally, coincident with a starry tribute honoring Fryer and playwright Neil Simon on Friday night at the Century Plaza. (At $350 a plate, it is a fund-raiser for the CTG and the Ahmanson.) A platoon of players who have worked for Fryer at the Ahmanson will appear or perform, including Lynn Redgrave, who will co-star with Frank Langella in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

“Hapgood,” although it will be the third offering in the Ahmanson season, will likely prove to be the final production arranged by Fryer during his remarkable 18 seasons as the Ahmanson’s artistic director.

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Fryer had announced his intentions to return to private film and stage production two years ago. But Martin Manulis, who came aboard to work with Fryer and presumably to succeed him, found after one season that the job left too little time for his own producing. Marshall Mason has come aboard this season as co-artistic director but on a temporary basis, and he leaves at year-end.

“Hapgood” will notably be the first Ahmanson production to be presented at the former Huntington Hartford Theatre, now the UCLA/James A. Doolittle Theatre, in Hollywood. The new arrangement with UCLA for that intimate gem of a theater should ease and solve one of the Ahmanson’s besetting problems: how to free the big theater for long enough runs to amortize the staggering initial costs of current musicals.

After “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods,” the Ahmanson patrons will shift to the Doolittle for a 12-week run of “Hapgood” (longer than usual because at 1,000 seats it’s half the size of the Ahmanson).

Meanwhile, the stage at the Ahmanson itself will be gutted and refitted (including the creation of a huge substage area) to accommodate “Phantom of the Opera.” When “Phantom” opens May 31, it will be for an indefinite run. And, at the end of August, Fryer can finally leave and get on with the rest of his life. (His successor has yet to be identified.)

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One of Fryer’s projects is a film version of “Chicago,” the play that was filmed once before as “Roxie Hart” with Ginger Rogers, then became the Bob Fosse musical with Gwen Verdon. Fryer, whose films include “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “The Boys From Brazil” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” has a second film and a stage project in the works as well.

The other morning in his memento-walled office on the third floor of the Ahmanson, Fryer noted that his 18th season seems to be off to a roaring start. “We’ve had to put on 20 extra telephone operators to handle subscriptions. They’re sitting backstage,” Fryer said.

The Ahmanson has what Fryer believes the largest subscription total of any U.S. theater. It peaked at 76,000 in 1981-82, the season Elizabeth Taylor did “The Little Foxes,” and has fluctuated since. Subscribers will have first crack at the first eight weeks of “Phantom” when those tickets go on sale, and that’s part of the present activity.

Running the Ahmanson artistically has been tough two ways, Fryer said. “It has no funding, which means it’s dependent on the box office. And it’s a big theater, 2,000 seats, tough for intimate dramas, best for big plays and musicals. Actually, I think it’s even larger than the largest of the so-called musical theaters in New York.”

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The Ahmanson opened in 1967 with Ingrid Bergman in the American premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s “More Stately Mansions.” The Friday-night gala also honors the Ahmanson’s 20th-anniversary season.

Fryer signed on in 1970, and to fill the huge theater he recruited stars and star vehicles. His biggest box-office smash was “The Little Foxes,” which ran 11 weeks and grossed just over $3 million.

Charlton Heston has been a consistent draw at the Ahmanson, and his “Detective Story” did $1.6 million in eight weeks. Neil Simon launched several of his plays at the Ahmanson. “Brighton Beach” and “Biloxi Blues” both did close to $2 million.

Jack Lemmon, Michael York, Maggie Smith, Celeste Holm, Maurice Evans, Hepburn and a sizable list of international stage and screen performers have faced the Ahmanson’s daunting distances.

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“People say that Los Angeles theater is somehow different from theater in New York or London or wherever,” Fryer said. “I don’t think so. Audiences here like new plays. They like Broadway hits. They love Neil Simon. They like to see movie stars, and that’s not a West Coast thing. Pacino sells out plays in New York and so does De Niro.

“Movie stars used to be reluctant to do theater in Los Angeles, afraid that bad reviews could hurt their careers. But it works the other way, too. Actors get good reviews and executives come to see them and it helps their careers. Thanks to Chuck (Heston) and Jack (Lemmon) and the actors who’ve worked here, I think we’ve pretty much overcome the reluctance.”

Fryer will continue to be based in Los Angeles. “I used to keep a place in New York, too. But who can afford it? Who can afford London? I took a cab from Bond Street to the Aldwych and it cost four pounds and something, the meter just ticking away as we sat there in traffic.”

Now the scripts are piling up, waiting to be read. “The agents are being very helpful,” Fryer said with mixed emotions.

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