THEATER : At 95, Director Stages a Comedy of Truths


Martin Magner turns 95 this week. As he has for so many years, he's celebrating the occasion by directing and producing a play.

"Actually, I did this play in the '20s in Nuremburg," says the German-born director, whose staging of Ben Jonson's 1905 classic "Volpone" (adapted by Stefan Zweig and newly translated by Carl R. Mueller) opens Friday at the Harman Avenue Theatre in Hollywood. The staging represents a memorial to Magner's late friend Zweig, and, he says earnestly, "it happens to be a very good play. Also, I hadn't done commedia dell'arte in a long time. I like comedies if they're good, and this is a wonderful mix of good, old-fashioned fun and truth."

He pauses. "I hate to use the word eternal, but they're truths that have been around for a long time."

Magner cheerfully describes the 12-character piece as "a loveless comedy about greed in every conceivable way, shape and form. The characters reflect the predatory aspects of birds of prey, vultures. . . . Volpone himself has no redeeming qualities at all, just the worst you can think. He's an avaricious guy trying to acquire as much as he can--through the most insidious . . . devices--from acquaintances and friends."

The comedy--set in 14th-Century Venice--also comes with a built-in moral. "The moral is, 'Don't love gold, love mankind,' " Magner said. "Open your doors and windows, let the fresh air in."

The staging--a co-production of his New Theatre Inc. and the Goethe Institut of Los Angeles--caps more than seven decades of theater work by Magner, who was born to a Jewish mother and Lutheran father.

After an early start as an actor, he found himself drawn to directing, often tackling politically risky "progressive" work in an increasingly repressive artistic environment. By 1933, he was running a cutting-edge cabaret in Vienna; in 1936, sensing the danger around him, Magner fled Europe. Settling in New York, he began a new career as a television director at CBS, where his credits included such pioneering fare as "Studio One" and "Montgomery Presents."

After retirement in 1965, Magner left New York and resettled in the Fairfax district with his third wife, Marion Palfi, a former Ziegfeld star turned prize-winning photographer. (Palfi died of breast cancer in 1979.)

Twelve years ago, Magner made another fortuitous connection, hooking up with the Goethe Institut, the German cultural center. Their continuing alliance has been a fruitful one, producing an annual parade of Magner stagings, including "La Ronde" (1989), "Woyzech" (1990), "The Beaver Coat" (1991), "The Broken Jug" (1992), "Nathan the Wise" (1993) and "The Physicists" (1994).

The spirited director, whose work has received the seal of approval from such diverse (and difficult-to-please) figures as George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams, has no shortage of fans. In recent years, he has been awarded the "Cross of Merit, First Class" by the president of Bundesrepublic of Germany and been commended by California Gov. Pete Wilson for his contributions to theater. In 1989, he was honored with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

At peace in his theater element (Sigmund Freud once offered to train him as a lay analyst, but Magner turned him down), the spry, soft-spoken director takes the accolades, as well as occasional bouts of ill health, in stride.

"I like to think that something remains (after we die)--call it the soul, the spirit," he theorizes. "If not, what are we all here for?" He chuckles gently. "You know, I've been asked a hundred times if I believe in God. I always say, 'I believe in a God that believes in me.' "

"Volpone" opens Friday, and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Harman Avenue Theatre, 522 N. La Brea Avenue in Hollywood , through April 8. For tickets, call (213) 466-1767.

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