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Meet Mr. Plucky : To James Lapine, directing his new play ‘Luck, Pluck & Virtue’ means booting Horatio Alger smack dab into the ‘90s

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. </i>

When someone first suggested he meet with playwright James Lapine to talk collaboration, Stephen Sondheim quickly agreed. The esteemed composer had recently seen Lapine’s play “Twelve Dreams,” and had actually thought about calling Lapine himself.

That was 1982, and Lapine was eager to turn Nathanael West’s novel “A Cool Million” into a musical. But when Sondheim reread it, he said recently, “to my horror I discovered it was ‘Candide’ in the Depression era, and (I’d) just done ‘Candide’ as a musical so recently.”

So the two men shelved that project, kept on talking and wound up creating “Sunday in the Park With George,” which later won them the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Lapine directed a remounting of the Sondheim/George Furth “Merrily We Roll Along” at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985, and in 1987, directed the world premiere of the Sondheim/Lapine “Into the Woods” at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

But Lapine never lost his interest in West’s “Cool Million.” Today, at the La Jolla Playhouse, Lapine’s long-incubating idea will finally have its world premiere as the play “Luck, Pluck & Virtue.”

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“Inspired by” West’s novel, “Luck, Pluck & Virtue” is truly a tale of wrong time, wrong place. Sweet Lester Price, who wants little more in life than to make his fortune, winds up losing his teeth, an eye, a thumb, a leg, his scalp and, invariably, his innocence.

“I think one of the things that appealed to me about it is just the visual possibilities,” says Lapine, who usually directs his own shows and is doing so here. “I like the stage challenges of having somebody literally falling apart before your very eyes.”

Keeping a tale like that bearable, not to mention zippy, does require some very complicated staging. In about two hours, 27 scenes introduce upward of 70 characters, most of them pretty unsavory folks, in locales throughout the country. Adrianne Lobel, who also designed the Lapine-directed film “Life With Mikey,” points out that “Luck, Pluck” “never stops moving. It’s like a voyage.”

Some voyage. Price, brought to life by actor Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”), has more misfortunes than poor Joe Bftsplk. West’s novel is subtitled “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin,” and even Price’s mother (played by Broadway veteran Marge Redmond) refers to her boy at one point as “Mr. Bits and Pieces.”

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It’s pretty familiar Lapine terrain. This is, after all, the playwright who let all those awful things happen to Prince Charming, Cinderella, Rapunzel and company in “Into the Woods.”

“Luck, Pluck” takes the black comedy of “Into the Woods” several steps further, becoming much more outrageous, observes La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff. Lapine, he says, “squeezes lemon juice into the cheeriest situation. There’s always a slightly dark edge or undercurrent that gives his work edge, bite and depth. He’s always happy to serve you up the dark side of the journey.”

At rehearsals in La Jolla, for instance, as actors playing ferocious dogs, aged hookers and insensitive movie directors assault our hero, nobody laughs more than Lapine. “Think ‘Guys and Dolls,’ everybody,” Lapine calls out to his cast one day. “With a twist.”

Better to think Laurel and Hardy, actually. The show incorporates considerable physical comedy, and Lapine brought in Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Three Stooges films for the cast to watch. Allen Shawn’s music, which accompanies much of the action, is reminiscent of the sort played with silent movies.

Lapine, 44, has updated and reshaped West’s 1934 novel, adding his own humor and satiric targets. His classic American family lives in Ohio, not Vermont, and their classic American home is moved not into a Fifth Avenue store window but to a Hollywood sound stage. Lester goes off to make his fortune-- his cool million--on the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour,” loses an eye to fake fingernails rather than a flying stone, and is maimed by overzealous actors playing “Injuns.”

It’s quite a yarn either way, and Lapine seems almost to be adapting his own script as he goes. Frequent Lapine collaborator and composer William Finn--"Falsettos” and other shows-- says about half of each show they worked on together was written in rehearsal, and Lapine is similarly honing this show. “I tend to do a lot in rehearsal,” says Lapine. “I like to rewrite when it’s on its feet.”

Lapine clearly relishes the rehearsal process, equating its pleasures to that of editing a film, when all the pieces get put together. He is everywhere you look--moving actors around cardboard trees, cuing the pianist, suggesting a new gesture or even turn of the head. He changes things easily, with a “yeah,” a “better,” sometimes just a glance.

He’s running rehearsals in sandals, baggy Bermuda shorts and a white “Sunday in the Park With George” T-shirt, and his dress reflects what actor Harris calls the show’s “relaxed atmosphere.” When Lapine’s 7-year-old daughter, Phoebe, declines playing with her doll somewhere besides the prop area one day, for instance, he first hisses, “Take direction,” then simply waits patiently until she moves.

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“He never flies off the handle,” says actor George Coe, who first worked with Lapine in “Into the Woods” at the Old Globe, “or if he does, we don’t see it. I’ve never seen him get crazy once.”

It’s no coincidence, Lapine admits, that, like his hero, he also grew up in a small town in Ohio but didn’t stay there long. His family moved to Connecticut, he went on to study history at Franklin and Marshall College, then headed west to California Institute of the Arts. CalArts, where he did graduate work in photography and design, “was inspirational,” he says today. “It fosters a kind of open-minded approach. You don’t have to be limited to one thing or another.”

Lapine certainly hasn’t been. He first made his living in New York, for instance, as both photographer and waiter. He didn’t much like shooting souffles for magazines, he says, but he loved being a waiter. “It’s good background for writing, because you’re such a neutral observer. If you’re like me and nosy, you’re always eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. A photographer is always framing images. So by the time you put the two together, it’s not such a big leap to what I do now.”

Actually, it was a big leap. Lapine sought to emulate art photographer Lee Friedlander, perhaps move on to directing films like Stanley Kubrick or Gordon Parks. He had no interest in theater aside from such “avant-garde stuff” as Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk. When theater opportunities first came up, he says, he saw them as a way to start working with actors.

He was a graphic designer in New York, then at Yale Drama School in New Haven, Conn., later teaching graphic design at Yale as well. His multimedia staging of Gertrude Stein’s three-page poem “Photograph,” a campus project at Yale, was essentially “a visual pageant,” Lapine says today.

“Photograph” made it to New York, where it fared well with critics and went on to win an Obie in the late ‘70s. His play “Table Settings” was written at both the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony and Albee Foundation colony, and Lapine was still teaching graphic design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology the day it opened Off-Broadway.

“Table Settings” won the George Oppenheimer Playwriting Award in 1980, and few of his theatrical involvements haven’t won prizes. Besides the Obie for “Photograph” and the Pulitzer with Sondheim for “Sunday in the Park,” he has taken home Tony Awards--for the book to “Falsettos” with William Finn and for the book to “Into the Woods.”

Many of those musicals have wound up on Broadway, but nearly all got there by way of nonprofit theaters, often in California. “Sunday” and “Into the Woods” both began at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, for instance, and “Woods” had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe.

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What does he like about regional theater? “That it’s not in New York. I like getting out of New York and not having the pressure of a New York opening, New York critics and your friends coming all the time. It’s liberating to be away from the mix.”

Few places could be farther away from the mix than sunny, peaceful La Jolla. Lapine calls La Jolla “a nice place to work” as well as a great place for a New Yorker to be in the summer. Lapine and McAnuff talked over the years about other projects, including a postponed Sondheim/Lapine musical originally announced for this year’s La Jolla Playhouse season.

“He’s one of those directors who has a standing offer at the Playhouse,” says McAnuff. “When we are of use to him, we want to attempt to be just that, depending on the project and if we have the resources to support it.”

It was at the Playhouse, for instance, in 1985, that Lapine directed a rewrite of “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show that ran only briefly on Broadway. Asked if the redo has any Broadway future, he is pessimistic. “That’s my great regret in life,” he says. “I really played the cards badly on that.

“After we opened it in La Jolla, I was sort of in my perfectionist mode and I just felt it wasn’t totally successful. Of course, now, in retrospect, I realize so few things are ever quite right. I should have just done it and moved on, instead of thinking that one day I would do it again.”

Maybe that’s why he was so determined to get “Luck, Pluck” up now. Never mind that he also was busy with such other projects as “Falsettos"--which was produced at the Old Globe earlier this year--and directing “Life With Mikey,” a film he was still doing post-production work on in May. He’d been working on “Luck, Pluck” on and off the past few years, and the rights would soon expire.

There were readings of “Luck, Pluck” in New York and at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. But it was McAnuff who “immediately jumped on it.” Within a few weeks of attending the small Taper reading in 1992, McAnuff made a commitment to produce the show this season.

“It sort of stuck in my brain as something I wanted to do,” Lapine says of this play. “There’s nothing new about it, which is maybe why it appealed to me, because it is the kind of story that speaks to the age. It’s a Horatio Alger tale gone awry.”

It’s also a good vehicle to explore humor and what makes something funny. His dramatic and musical work both showcase Lapine’s wit, but the playwright’s cerebral demeanor often seems incongruous with his remarks. He tosses off stuff like a description of his play as your basic story “about a young innocent who gets dismembered” with deadpan delivery, only occasionally rolling his eyes or offering a smile.

“One of the things that interested me about this story is what part of us laughs at other people’s misfortunes,” Lapine says. “It’s universal, but if you stop to think about it, it’s quite sick. It so fascinates me how we always laugh when somebody falls on a banana peel, how comedy and injury are often so interwoven. I’ve always been a sucker for that.

“On one hand, on the bright side, you could say that we laugh as a response to our sense of vulnerability. The other side is that it responds to our sense of superiority in seeing somebody else have a misfortune. It makes us feel somehow lucky or better or above the misfortune.”

Not that he wants to come across as a man on a mission, he says several different ways. He wants to have fun at what he does, and one aspect of the fun is having it actually say something.

Casual conversation in the car and over meals is often serious, and he does concede he tries “to make everything I do have something to say. I’m a hippie child of the ‘60s. What drives me crazy about mass media entertainment is that it’s so often devoid of any ideas.”

Not Lapine’s shows. “If you look at the musicals he’s done--'Falsettos,’ ‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Sunday in the Park'--how would you characterize them?” asks actor Chip Zien, a veteran of “Into the Woods” and “Falsettos.” “There’s not a lot of dancing in a Lapine musical.”

Both “Woods” and “Sunday” were multilayered despite the seeming familiarity of their origins--fairy tales and George Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” respectively. “Falsettos” is very funny but remains the tale of a broken family, unconventional matings and the ravages of AIDS.

Composer Finn says he called on Lapine to direct “March of the Falsettos,” a predecessor to “Falsettos,” because Lapine’s play “Table Settings” moved like a musical. And all of Lapine’s shows, whether musicals or plays, also smack of his training and interests in the visual arts.

Lapine “visualizes while he writes,” says collaborator Sondheim, referring to the playwright’s “visual gift.” And McAnuff says Lapine’s shows often make him feel he’s “watching this exquisitely moving graphic.”

McAnuff offers the example of the way furniture slides on and off, down and around the stage in “Falsettos,” a device that seems choreographed as much as directed. “James is always interested in the picture,” says Zien. “If you look at our show (‘Falsettos,’ which closed on Broadway June 27) from the balcony, it’s almost like a series of pictures. He’s very concerned people on either side match.”

“Luck, Pluck” is also a very visual show, from Lobel’s upbeat, cheery sets to what Lapine pegs as the indirect influence of painter Jasper Johns and others. Johns’ foundation was a backer of “Photograph,” says Lapine, although they hadn’t yet met, and Lapine says the look of “Luck, Pluck” was “in a very abstract way inspired by Johns’ flag imagery and cross-hatched painting technique as well as by the work of artists Robert Indiana and Frank Stella.”

In fact, Lapine continues, the set is “a crazy quilt influenced by those American pop artists in combination with American folk painting. The rolling painted backdrop is 450 feet long and often suggests a deconstructed flag that never stops moving.”

The director “really does have a vision and point of view of what something should look like and how it should be,” says Bernadette Peters, who worked with Lapine in “Sunday,” “Into the Woods” and the film “Impromptu.” “He never throws the baby out with the bathwater. Unlike others who say, ‘Let’s try this ,’ and forget their objective, he never loses the objective.”

Directing work he’s collaborated on helps Lapine keep control, too. But he pays a price, particularly on a play where he doesn’t have collaborators on the writing. Lapine calls the dual role “kind of lonely and very exhausting. You have to be very clear whether the problem is the writing or the direction. You can get very confused as to whether something’s not working because it isn’t directed properly or because the writing isn’t there. It’s easier to direct someone else’s stuff.”

Lapine has thus far directed only films that others have written. The first film he directed, “Impromptu,” came about primarily for two reasons, he says. First, “I just wanted to do something different.” And second, “my wife (screenwriter Sarah Kernochan) wrote it and it was sort of a family project.”

He learned filmmaking on the job much as he learned theater, taking on “Impromptu” after just a week at the Sundance Institute and some experience with videos of his theater work. The 1991 film, a comic period piece about Frederic Chopin, George Sand, Franz Liszt and their crowd, was filmed in France, starred Judy Davis, Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Emma Thompson, and got some nice notices.

Then, Lapine was working with producer Scott Rudin on a project that fell through, and Rudin sent over Marc Lawrence’s script for “Life With Mikey.” “It amused me when I read it, and I really wanted to do another movie,” says Lapine. “I wanted to do something kind of commercial, a studio movie, and just have that experience.”

The resulting Touchstone film, released in June, stars Michael J. Fox and is dotted with cameos by the growing Lapine stage ensemble. Zien says the credits for the film are a who’s who of anyone who ever worked with Lapine, and it sure seems that way. Lapine guesses there are 30 of his stage pals in that film, including regular Patinkin as well as playwright friends Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and Finn.

“The nice thing about making films is the resources you have at your disposal,” Lapine says. “But in the end plays are more fun because they’re immediate. The audience is right there, and it’s changing night to night. What’s nice about theater writing is it lives on. That’s always very attractive to an ego. When you’re a theater director, your productions are finite.”

And movie writing? He’s written three movies, none of which has ever been made. Asked what they were about, he replies: “One was about an artist.” Then, as if he never thought about it before, Lapine pauses and says, “They were actually all about artists. Probably why they never got made.”

At press time, “Mikey” had grossed about $11.7 million in the United States and Canada and was still playing on about 180 screens, according to the film’s distributor Walt Disney Studios, but Lapine thinks it unlikely he’ll jump into another big film right away. “It’s not as if ‘Life With Mikey’ was a terrible experience,” he says, “because it wasn’t. The fact that it hasn’t done that well doesn’t really affect the experience of making it at all.” He is, in fact, “sort of ambivalent. I certainly was glad I did ‘Life With Mikey.’ I learned a great deal from it, but I think I have to do things that are small and personal and that I generate myself. Movies take such a long time that I realize I have to really desperately want to do one. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing.”

Lapine says he’d like to do an opera. “Most of the musicals I have done have been moderate size,” he says, “and I’d like to do some really gigantic show. Something where visuals are totally the focus, and the story becomes a reason for the visuals.”

A new production of “Falsettos,” which Lapine will also direct, is expected in Los Angeles early next year at the Doolittle Theatre, and Lapine is also committed to a film of “Falsettos” for Disney and Interscope, which he hasn’t yet written. “I like to keep busy,” he says. “I seem to function better when I’m doing a few things at once.”

Most immediate, however, is the new, yet unnamed Sondheim/Lapine collaboration. It will take shape in a closed workshop at New York’s Lincoln Center this fall, and Lapine says its future life will depend on whether he and Sondheim decide to go with it as two one-acts or a full evening.

It will be their first show together since ’87, and Sondheim says they’ve worked on it sporadically over the last couple years. The book is about three-fourths written, says Lapine, and outlined, and Sondheim is currently writing the songs.

Does it bother Lapine that all these shows are usually called “Sondheim musicals”?

“Nah, it doesn’t bother me,” he says, shrugging. “It’s to be expected. It slightly annoys me when actors say they really want to work with Sondheim, but I don’t really care. I’d obviously prefer the shows be associated with me as well, but they’re musicals and people go to musicals to hear music.”

The first half of this new show is based on the 19th-Century Italian novel “Fosca” (also made into the Italian film “Passione d’amore”) and is about “a sick, ugly woman who, through the force of her passion, gets a very handsome Italian soldier to fall in love with her.” The second is based on “Muscle,” Sam Fussell’s autobiographical book about a young man “who gives up pursuit of a life in academia to become a competitive body-builder.”

Both halves are meditations on beauty, but Lapine says he doesn’t question why certain subjects and ideas interest him. “I like to work intuitively,” he says. “Part of the fun is the mystery of where one simple idea can take you.”


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