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Exploring a Substitution Mysterieuse; Reading Between the Lines of ‘Other Half’

Times Theater Writer

Frank Langella became ill during a matinee performance of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” last Thursday. He had to be replaced for the remainder of the afternoon and for that evening’s performance by an understudy.

Normally, such an item is of only routine interest. What made the Ahmanson incident different is that understudy John Castellanos was apparently not ready. He had to go on, script in hand, as the conniving Valmont--a situation that angered the audience and set some patrons clamoring for their money back.

What happened? Ahmanson officials say that understudy rehearsals began Nov. 2, one week after the show opened and only one day before Castellanos was called on to stand in for Langella.

However, Castellanos is a member of the company (he plays Mme. De Rosemonde’s valet). He is also a well-credentialed actor who has performed at the San Diego Old Globe, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespearean Festival. According to the records at Actors’ Equity, he was hired at the Ahmanson Sept. 29--a full five weeks before having to step in for Langella. That should have been time enough for him to learn the lines. Indeed, director Peter Wood says Castellanos was “off book” at the Nov. 2 understudy rehearsal.

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Ahmanson artistic director Robert Fryer could not explain Castellanos’ lapse, but Wood was specific:

“It’s a very long role,” he said, “as long as any ever written in the theater. Frank Langella became ill very suddenly. This required Mr. Castellanos to come on at a moment’s notice. To ask anyone to take over a role in the climactic scenes of the play is very difficult indeed. I believe I would have been terrified. I should have taken the book on too.”

Understandable for the matinee, but what about the evening show?

“Well, it becomes a sort of crutch, of course,” Wood conceded. “Of all cities, this is a city that espouses the simplistic view, but you’re dealing with a very complex problem here. There is considerable psychological pressure. In London there was an actor who opened in ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’ after many weeks of rehearsal and couldn’t remember one word of that play. Ian Holm, a splendid actor, had to withdraw from playing Hickey in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ at the Royal Shakespeare (Company) because the mind simply couldn’t cope. I empathize with Castellanos. I understand the problem and I don’t want to see him pilloried over this.”

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Castellanos himself declined comment, sending word through an Ahmanson official that while he was not prepared to go on without the book last week, he is now.

When asked why last Thursday evening’s show was not simply canceled when it became clear that Castellanos would be reading the text, Fryer said: “We had close to 1,400 people coming. This is a heavily subscribed season. It would have been very difficult to accommodate them all at another performance with comparable seats.”

About 30 people, however, did opt for an exchange--a prerogative available to all patrons. Refunds, though, were not offered. As the Ahmanson’s Veronica Claypool explained: “It’s not common practice in the theater to offer refunds. It says so right on the ticket.”

That may be, but because of the unusual nature of the emergency (Langella’s illness, described as “stomach problems,” was sudden and unavoidable), shouldn’t they have considered refunds anyway?

“If we had no other alternative, yes,” Claypool said. “For instance we had a subscriber with seats in row double C because she’s legally blind. Since we might not be able to duplicate her seats (on an exchange), we refunded her money.”

BREAKING THE SILENCE: It wasn’t to say very much, but word was finally spoken Wednesday by officials of ATLAS, the Associated Theatres of Los Angeles, breaking the two-week news blackout on the future of this city’s 99-seat theaters. The statement follows Oct. 25 discussions among officials of Actors’ Equity (the stage actors union), ATLAS and 15 actors and small theater operators who are suing Equity over its 99-Seat Actors’ Theatre Plan.

ATLAS officials said: “Even though Equity has missed its deadline (last Thursday), which was agreed upon by all parties, union officials Alan Eisenberg and George Ives have assured ATLAS that Equity will have that promised response on Tuesday. We’re maintaining the position that a mutually beneficial conclusion (to the discussions) is possible and are reassuring actors, under pressure of cease-and-desist letters from their union.”

Equity’s Eisenberg could not be reached by press time and Ives was on vacation. Asked what had caused the delay, Equity’s Western Regional Director Edward Weston said: “We are a democracy and it does take time to make decisions.”

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The mystery is why Equity has not placed a moratorium on cease-and-desist letters to actors appearing in shows that have not signed on to Equity’s plan during this discussion period.

“We could not agree to that,” Weston said. “We told (ATLAS) immediately that we had to send cease-and-desist letters. And they can’t ‘reassure’ our members. They have no right to tell our actors what the union may or may not be doing. They are interfering in the union’s internal affairs and that’s not what they should be doing. They have a producing organization and we have an actors’ union.”

Will there be a statement from Equity Tuesday?

“There is no way to guarantee that there will be,” Weston said. “That’s the nature of democracy. It takes time. It would appear that they are less interested in discussion than in giving us an ultimatum.”

“We’ve lifted the news blackout because our concern is that the theater community thinks that everything is going to be settled,” said ATLAS representative Laura Zucker. “But the issues are still very strong and we want to keep them in front of people. We want to keep the community apprised of what progress is and is not happening. People have a right to know.”


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