This is the 10th year that the Los Angeles Theatre Center (formerly known as the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre when the tradition of this festival of premieres began) has had one wallop of a “Big Weekend.”
For the occasion, the center throws open its doors to the public, which can attend the fully produced shows on its four stages and/or attend a daytime diet of readings of plays-in-progress (NewWorks Project) and/or developmental work in any of its half-dozen labs (the Playwrights’ Unit, Asian-American Theatre Project, Women’s Project, Music Theatre and Black Theatre Labs).
The exercise is unvarnished. No effort is made to impress or significantly stage any of the works. Everything takes place in one black box of a rehearsal hall where the turkeys are lumped with the trimmings, the barely-begun with the almost-completed, and the good, bad and indifferent are exposed to scrutiny and discussion.
It’s a little like seeing a clock in pieces, before it’s put together, extraneous parts discarded, its mechanism tuned and timed into a ticking machine designed to give us the prevailing pulse of the day.
Among the music theater lab works, “Blind Revels or the Dancer’s Heel,” an original beginning-of-a-musical about the lure and misuse of power by Ed Barnes and Irene Oppenheim, made us yearn to see and hear more, while “Frozen Futures” (by Michael R. Farkash and Miriam Cutler), a deliciously spaced-out fantasy about cryogenics and aliens, sent this viewer into a bit of an orbit.
For the rest it was business as usual, with Jonathan Field’s “Courting Winona” (Playwrights’ Unit) more zany screenplay than play until its final moments, and Mira-Lani Oglesby’s “Increase After Completion” (Women’s Project) original but redundant by half.
(The writer did not see and cannot comment on the Asian-American Project or the Young Playwrights’ Lab.)
Of the four NewWorks plays, only Marlane Meyer’s “The Geography of Luck” was ready for the gatepost. This thoroughbred, written by the author of “Etta Jenks” and “Kingfish,” is another caustic look at life on the fringes of morality and hope--this time taking place near Las Vegas, where, as one character puts it, “The money makes it difficult to see that there is nothing there,” and where dreamers and their sad dreams rarely fuse. It reinforced the perception that Meyer is not only an expert at probing the inert human heart, but also performs her societal surgery with a scalpel drenched in wit.
Nothing touched it. Neal Bell’s “Ready for the River” was an extended great escape story. Cherrie Moraga ‘s “Shadow of a Man” (of which this writer saw half) was another Latino family play, this one undermined by dramatic stasis and a multitude of cliches.
Most disappointing was Edward and Mildred Lewis’ “Spring Street,” an updating of Gorki’s “Lower Depths” designed to reflect the condition of the homeless on the streets outside this theater. It turned out to be a simplistic effort that advertised its enlightened liberalism but wallowed in romantic stereotypes: evil slumlord, alcoholic actor, goody-two-shoes social worker, noble activist, innocent from Iowa, whore with fantasies of gold. Worthiness without stage worthiness is a deadly combination.
In the course of the weekend, a young woman had a seizure on the sidewalk outside the theater. A cop was there and an ambulance arrived in minutes. But the sight of the real thing stood in defiance of any mawkishness on stage. The center may be the only theater in town where more dramatic events go on outside than in. It is starting to define itself not only as eclectic and multiethnic, but as having a taste for investigations, good or bad, of the social underbelly typified by the one in which it rests.