Meyer's Train of Thought Leads to Tolstoy's Last Days

Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It is tempting to pigeonhole any artist, but it is especially tempting in the case of writer-director-novelist Nicholas Meyer.

Starting with his novel, "The Seven Per-Cent Solution," the spectacular feat of Holmesian pastiche that shot him out of obscurity, and continuing with his H. G. Wells-inspired movie, "Time After Time"; the made-for-TV World War III nightmare, "The Day After"; the second, fourth and sixth entries in the "Star Trek" movie franchise, and his Civil War-era screenplay for "Sommersby," Meyer has become Mr. Time Machine. He appears to be the writer-director of choice to take us to another time.

It's something he seems to be painfully aware of. In his Paramount studio office, referring to Hollywood's powers-that-be, he says dryly, "They always want me to do something in the 23rd Century, even though I'd like to get some 20th-Century stories on."

So, when Meyer returned to playwriting--something he first explored in the late '60s at the University of Iowa, where he spent most of his time stage directing and writing film reviews--it's also tempting to assume that he would set his play in the here and now. After all, unlike the screenwriter for hire that Meyer knows so well, the playwright owns his words and can have it his way.

But no, the Time Machine Man is in full operation. Meyer's new play, "Loco Motives," which he is also directing in the cavernous Sound Stage No. 10 at the Culver Studios in Culver City (where it continues through April 18), is a massive account of the last days of Leo Tolstoy's life. And true to a writer in love with time passages, it travels back and forth from Tolstoy's waning hours in 1910, to his literary rise in the 1850s, his triumph with "War and Peace," and his later obsession with philosophical and religious asceticism.

Meyer's own obsessions--trains, playing with historical figures--seem to have found an especially appropriate home in "Loco Motives," which begins and ends at the Astapovo train station where the frail, aged Tolstoy had literally fled from his home for apparently nothing more than peace and quiet. But as word spreads that the most famous man of Russian letters is dying, hordes come to the station to pay tribute.

Most of the fans, however, arrive out of devotion to Tolstoy's evangelism for a nativist, primitive Christianity--the project that swept his novel-writing to the side, much to the grief of his wife, Sonia.

"It isn't simply the bizarre circumstances of Tolstoy's end that were so fascinating to me," says Meyer, 47, taking long, slow puffs on a thick cigar. "His life exemplified this gap between wanting to do good and being able to do good--a provocative notion, to say the least.

"Like that saying goes by Mel Brooks as the 2,000-Year-Old Man--'We mock the thing we are to be.' George Orwell noted how perverse it was that the same writer who loathed Shakespeare, and the illogic of King Lear willingly dividing up his kingdom, ended up giving away his land!"

Meyer has known this story from the time he read Henri Troyat's Gargantuan Tolstoy biography 15 years ago. But it was a review of A. N. Wilson's 1989 biography that triggered the idea for the play--"this wonderful combination of Lear, the dying man, the millennium, the separation between his Christian ideal and his reality as an impossible person to live with."

And reflecting on another Meyer obsession, he adds, "I do seem to be attracted to windmill-tilters. It's no accident that I've written a screenplay of 'Don Quixote.' "

To even contemplate dramatizing Tolstoy's life on a sound stage would seem sufficiently quixotic--until you learn that the original staging concept behind "Loco Motives" was even less likely.

Enter American Zoetrope producer and longtime Meyer friend Jeff Kleeman, who brought the play to Yalda Tehranian, a creative executive at Columbia. Last year, Tehranian had produced "Hobbywood Canteen," a tale of old Hollywood, on the Culver sound stage--the first, she says, of an intended series of site-specific productions.

The intended site for "Loco Motives," however, wasn't a sound stage at all, but downtown's Union Station. It would appear to be an inspired notion, theater's equivalent of Heidi Duckler's imaginative site-specific works for dance. So, what went wrong?

"Actually," Meyer says, "the problem wasn't so much Union Station as the fact that the staging was set in Harvey's restaurant inside Union Station. When I flew in from London"--where Meyer has lived since the mid-'80s--"I had this image of playing in a train station, but it was basically an eating area with poor sight lines and high ceilings which would swallow the actors' voices."

But since Kleeman and Tehranian had access to plenty of Hollywood resources, including equipment donations from both Culver and Sony Studios and the acting services of William Atherton as Tolstoy and Laurie Walters as Sonia, using the sound stage again made sense. With the aid of Sony head Arnold Shupack, the company also provided the production a grant that amounted to between 35% and 40% of its total undisclosed budget, according to Tehranian.

"This is a natural progression from 'Hobbywood,' " the producer says. "What Nick has written is a wonderful balancing act between comedy and drama, the emotional and the intellectual."

When he isn't ensconced in his London home writing novels (his latest Sherlock Holmes tome, "The Canary Trainer," is due in September), Meyer is accustomed to the massive outlays of expenses and materials that go with large studio productions. So he is flabbergasted, but gratefully so, by the amount of donated labor and supplies for "Loco Motives." But he also muses, "When you're directing a movie, somebody picks you up in a limo. When you're directing a play, you are the limo.

"This is a big bite, directing my own play, my first play since some radio work. It's like walking into a propeller. But a strange thing has been happening since rehearsals started," Meyer said, puffing on his cigar. "As director, I don't remember having written this. A line will come up, and I'll have no memory of where it came from. So, no, the problem of directing my own play hasn't happened here. That isn't to say it isn't backbreaking work."

And any speculation, Meyer insists, that the Culver production is a showcase tryout for a future film should be quashed. "I wrote this as a play, and that's it. Had I wanted this to be a movie, I would have written it for the screen." (Ironically, a film version of Tolstoy's last days is reportedly in progress, produced by David Brown and based on Jay Parini's novel, "The Last Station.")

Meyer describes the process of staging "Loco Motives" as if he were a scientist watching a specimen alter before his eyes. "I was aware of taking Sonia's side during the writing, how she recognizes Tolstoy's artistry even as he seems to run away from it toward religion. But now, I realize that it isn't nothing for Tolstoy to have coached Gandhi on how to resist the South African authorities. In exchange for one less 'War and Peace,' I might well settle for world peace instead. Bill (Atherton), of course, is convinced that Tolstoy was right and Sonia was nuts; Laurie, of course, feels just the opposite."

Because Tolstoy continues to cast such a giant shadow across the world of writing, talking about him tends to naturally stimulate talk of writing. It's something Meyer has clearly done a lot of, so he can instantly cut to a shorthand, humble description of himself: "I'm a receiver, a literary recycler. I like to take in things and redo them. Most of my original ideas, in my judgment, stink. I specialize in sensing a good story, which is simply that once I've heard it, I understood why you wanted to tell it to me."

But, original idea man or not, Meyer still feels the need to have the writer's sense of exile. "I'm most stimulated when I have some alien status. That's why I came to L. A. from New York in the '70s, when L.A. felt like a strange place to me. By 1984, I was blending in here, and London felt like enough of a strange place to be just right. And I was trying to get away from all of the ugly stuff with Reagan.

"Now, my friends are asking me to come back here. They're telling me, 'It's OK now.' We'll see. . . ."

"Loco Motives" runs at Culver Studios Sound Stage 10, 9336 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until April 18. Tickets: $20. Information: (213) 660-8587.

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