It was appropriate that the Los Angeles Theatre Center should hold its third-birthday celebration last week at a club called the Stock Exchange. This is a theater that likes to take a plunge.
Consider Marlane Meyer's "Kingfish." A strange play. The hero (Buck Henry at LATC) pulls a box around on a leash and pretends it's a dog, while two figures in black (Philip Littell and director David Schweizer) monitor the story from above, like bunraku puppeteers.
One can imagine the Mark Taper Forum doing "Kingfish"--at Taper, Too. One can imagine South Coast Repertory doing it--on its Second Stage. One can't envision it on either theater's main stage. A bit too special for our subscribers.
LATC has lots of nerve and three main stages. "Kingfish" gets a full-scale mounting at Theatre Two, and it hasn't proved too arcane for the general public. People may not quite know what to make of this play (see the lobby survey below), but Meyer's script offers enough human stuff for them to grab hold of and Schweizer's cool, formal staging frames its questions beautifully.
Clarity isn't everything in this life. Hit the scan button on your TV and watch the parade of empty messages. Sitcoms, car chases, tomorrow's weather, an ad for McDonald's, an ad for Dukakis. At every moment we know exactly where we are and exactly what we are being sold.
It's refreshing to be in a world where the rules aren't exactly clear; where you have to work to figure out the game.
"Kingfish" isn't just a game, however. It has been said that the play's subject is "perception." But an eye chart is also about perception. Meyer's play is about her characters and what happens to them. The abstractions come afterward.
I'm told that Meyer took her story from an actual case. There, an older man took two youths into his home and was ripped off by them. Meyer's version ends more happily, at least for the older man.
He is defended by his Ninja watchdog, Kingfish. The audience sees Kingfish as a box on four legs, reminiscent of a 1950s TV. (Littell barks for him from the bridge above.) His master sees him as a real dog, one that likes to watch Masterpiece Theatre.
His master's nurse (Jacque Lynn Colton) and her husband, a dog trainer (Tony Abatemarco) also see Kingfish as flesh-and-blood. Or at least they seem to.
Not so the two young men who come into the older man's life: a hustler (Merritt Butrick) and his roommate, who happens to be with the CIA (Sam Anderson.) They treat Kingfish like a real dog. But they know, they think, that he is just a box.
Too late, Butrick discovers the danger in that theory. Not only is this a play, it's a revenge play. It offers a lively plot, outrageously funny performances (from Butrick and Anderson, especially) and the theatrical riddle of the year: Is Kingfish real or not?
It's a bit like asking "Who is Godot?"--the play would be diminished if it could truly be answered. But it is fun to try. On the evidence, I'd say that Kingfish isn't a real dog , no. Somebody does do a job on poor Butrick, but not Kingfish. Look stage right.
Kingfish is "real," nevertheless. And not just as a theatrical device--though Meyer and director Schweizer have their fun there too. Kingfish is real in the world of the story. He has no physical existence, but he impinges on the other characters.
This happens all the time in real life. For an extreme example, take the newspaper stories last winter about the seemingly normal Midwestern family that had kept the mummified corpse of the father in a chair for eight years, bringing it up to the table, talking to it, ministering it.
What is really "there," in other words, has less effect on human beings than what they think is there. Or what they have found it to their interests to think is there. An agreed-upon "as if" can become a fact.
We have all known men who talked to their dogs. Henry's character merely takes the tendency one step further, by inventing the dog. Abatemarco and Colton abet his fantasy, feeling that Kingfish will be easy enough to put to sleep once Henry is out of the way, which doesn't seem far off, considering the state of his health.
But then Henry, a born bachelor (homosexual, in fact), decides to start a family. He will adopt "sons." Now it's one "as-if" against another. Which fiction will win? Seemingly, the violent one. Grrrrr.
Another playwright would have left Henry back where he started, but even more sunk in his solipsism. Meyer leaves us feeling oddly hopeful about him. His pretending has brought him some actual adventures, some actual human contact. His blood is going again. He may be on his way to becoming his own man.
It's even possible that he always was his own man. Note his first name. Wylie.
His journey is easier to trace in the script than in the production. Director Schweizer has imposed a certain flatness on the show. It's as if all the lines were being read with quotation marks around them, so lightly observed that they are only just felt. Another convention is that of having the stage directions (some of them) read from above by Schweizer.
A real dramatic event is going on, but it's going on within a central space, with all kinds of controls around it. All of this cools the temperature of the story by several degrees, adding wit, subtracting emotional involvement--a 1980s equivalent of Brecht's famed and often misused "alienation" effect.
It's precisely right for this play, and it doesn't discourage Schweizer's actors. They are free, within their cage, to do their thing. And this cast happens to include some of the most technically accomplished players in town. Colton may specialize in poor-little-fat-girls, but her voice is as focused as a laser, and her nurse is hapless, lethal and funny.
Anderson's CIA agent tries to walk around like John Wayne, but is deeply aware that he hasn't got the chaps, and again you don't know whether to laugh or to feel something for the guy.
Butrick's tacky hustler has the gift of all great excuse-mongers: He believes his own fabrications. (Ironic that this is the play's truth teller.) Henry sees how pathetic this kid is, but also sees how pathetic he himself is. It's a love story, of sorts.
Going along with the events in the frame, we can also enjoy the conceptualizing around the frame: the supercilious way that Schweizer reads the stage directions; the annoyed way that Colton looks up at the bridge when she has to make her final exit. I wasn't finished!
Everything's very tightly controlled, including the playing field. Douglas D. Smith's set is bare as a blackboard, with an occasional projection (by Smith and Bradford Fowler) when Wylie's living room needs a piece of furniture or an Oriental rug. Flick, and it disappears. But "Kingfish" stays with you.