I don’t know how many plays and movies I’ve seen that try to define L.A., but I saw another one recently that also doesn’t quite make it.
It was a play at the Mark Taper called “Street of the Sun” by Jose Rivera, who came here from New York to get rich and presumably has done OK, but still writes about how much he hates the place.
“Sun” isn’t a disaster play, although it does end with an earthquake caused by a kind of large, lurking figure who, I assume, is either the personification of chaos or the director trying to make things interesting.
Probably the only reason the script doesn’t also have us dying in lava or drowning in a tidal wave is because they’re too difficult to stage. All you need to simulate an earthquake is a recorded rumble and some blinking lights. Screaming helps but a stunned silence works just as well.
Cliches abound in “Sun” from doing lunch to taking meetings. Discussions of riots and racial hatred are sprinkled like Parmesan over pasta in scenes that have oppressed people suddenly expounding like Hamlet.
That’s not all. Failure and duplicity dance across the stage and poverty sings in the wings while the two main characters, Jorge and Therese, try to work out their personal problems. This is accomplished mostly in bed where L.A.'s toughest problems, as everyone knows, are generally worked out.
The primary bone of contention between them, among other bones, is that while Jorge learns to hate L.A., Therese, who hated it in the beginning, has learned to love and understand the city through the simple expediency of a bus ride through town. Hoo boy.
Rivera said in an interview once that he came to L.A. on a smoggy day because of a job opportunity and instantly disliked it. My introduction to the place was similar. I also arrived on a smoggy day to interview for a job (this one), but I had an advantage over Rivera. I already hated L.A.
I was raised in the Bay Area so I came by my antipathy toward Southern California naturally. Anything below Santa Barbara was Hollywood with all of its lust and iniquity, anything north was sweet and staunchly moral.
But then, like Rivera, I was offered a job down here and when good money walks in the door, distaste flies out a window. That was 25 years ago. It has taken more than a bus ride, but I’ve gotten to like trying to figure the place out. It involves the same sense of achievement one derives from digging a sliver out of your finger.
Much of Jorge’s hatred of L.A. in “Sun” is rooted in pitch meetings with two loutish studio executives, during which two other actors in costumes prance about the office. I guess the scene is intended as satire, because I’ve had a lot of those kinds of meetings and no one has ever pranced.
The only surreality I can recall is pitching a TV movie once with a producer who suffered from clinical inadequacy. When the network guy turned us down, the producer began to cry right there in his office. It was a nice Hollywood moment, but we still didn’t get the job.
Rivera’s pitch scene ends with Jorge refusing to sell out and wanting to return to New York where, of course, no one ever sells out.
Anyone who attempts to define L.A. in broad terms ends up drowning in his own saliva without ever having captured the soul of the city. Well, actually, I’m not certain the city has a soul but it does have an essence, and that’s equally difficult to capture.
“Sun” tries it with symbols, not the least of which is the presence of Apollo the sun god who, we learn, has purchased a place in Bel-Air, where other old gods and goddesses live. Apollo’s presence is something of a mystery, but then so is the whole play. At the end, he bounds up the stairs and flies out the door.
Those who parade around in “Sun” are otherwise little more than stick figures who have mastered the F-word, which is used in abundance. If the play were more profound one might conclude that Rivera was suggesting we are all stick figures, limited by inadequacy to a single form of expression, but there’s nothing that subtle about his presentation.
Therese defines L.A. by what she sees from a moving bus. When he isn’t doing lunch or taking meetings, Jorge defines L.A. on the basis of a distant view from the Griffith Observatory.
Their visions are therefore either blurred or indistinct, and you can’t really learn to love or hate what you can’t see clearly. That may be Jose Rivera’s problem in writing the thing. He just can’t make out the realities on which to base the fantasies.
Al Martinez can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org