They Just Blew Into Town

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Randall Arney sits in the living room of his new Hancock Park home on the day before Christmas, with his back to the yet-unpacked boxes tucked away in the adjacent dining room. Soft Los Angeles sunlight streams in through arched picture windows, creating a scene quite different from the many Chicago winters he’s known.

That’s not why the quietly congenial director-actor, 41, has just relocated to L.A., but it doesn’t hurt. After 17 years in the Windy City, the longtime member and former artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company has come here for the same reason that other members of that noted ensemble have taken the trek: to pursue film and TV and perhaps theater as well.

He got his feet wet about a year ago, acting in an HBO Larry Gelbart film called “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” More recently, Arney performed opposite Glenne Headly in an L.A. Theatre Works live radio theater taping of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.” And there is talk of taking his principal project of the last few years--Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which he has staged in Chicago (twice), L.A., New York and Japan--to London.


Mostly, however, Arney is enjoying the novelty of once again making the rounds of auditions--something he hasn’t had the chance to do in a long time.

“I had for eight years been thinking about the group,” says Arney, referring to his 1987-95 tenure at the helm of Steppenwolf, during which time he transferred a number of productions to Broadway, including “The Song of Jacob Zulu” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” and oversaw the creation of a new $9-million, two-theater artistic home for the company. “I was excited about thinking personally again, about dreams and desires for acting and directing and pursuing the [film] medium out here.”

Besides, there was precedent. Arney follows in the footsteps of such Steppenwolf alumni as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.

“A lot of my friends that had been in Chicago and started this theater company with us are now out here,” Arney says. “In fact, I have more of those friends here than I do in Chicago now.”

As luck would have it, Arney has his work arriving in L.A. with him. His national-tour staging of the popular Martin comedy opens at the Wilshire Theatre on Wednesday, starring Mark Nelson and Paul Provenza.

Set in 1904 in a fictional Paris cafe, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” chronicles an imagined existential te^te-a-te^te between young geniuses Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.


Martin’s script first landed on Arney’s desk in 1993.

“It was the freshest piece of writing I’d read in a while,” he recalls. “It’s smart and yet wildly funny and stupid at the same time. It’s his sensibility, not only the subject matter, and his ideas about what this century is and was.

“Treating a meeting of Picasso and Einstein takes a level of intelligence, to be able to put words in those two guys’ mouths. But the play also had such heart and, ultimately, optimism. I was attracted by that, in what is otherwise a fairly cynical landscape of playwriting.”

There were also practical factors in the play’s favor, not least Martin’s celebrity.

“We were looking for a play to open our [new] studio second stage,” Arney says. “We wanted a new play with the profile that might bring people to a new space.”

Arney decided to offer Martin a production, on the condition that the first-time playwright would come to Chicago.

“I talked to Steve and told him we were interested in doing the play, but only if he had the chance to work with us on it,” he says. “I knew that by bringing Steve and a cast of actors and designers together, that would really be the way to take the next step with the play.”

Arney was born in Effingham, Ill., a small town about 200 miles south of Chicago, and is one of six children of a schoolteacher-administrator father and homemaker mother.


He attended college at Eastern Illinois University from 1974 to 1978, and that’s where he first met some of the people--including Malkovich and Joan Allen-- who were to figure prominently in his theater career.

“Malkovich transferred to a school called Illinois State University in ‘77,” Arney explains. “I would talk to him on the phone from Eastern and he was saying what a great theater department [ISU had] and that I should come there. So when I graduated from Eastern, I went to ISU to get an MFA degree in acting.

“About that time--it was 1977 or 1978--the group was going from Illinois State to Chicago to start Steppenwolf in the basement of a church in Highland Park in Chicago. John would call me from there and say, ‘You should quit school and come and join our theater. I’m driving a bus during the day and we’re doing plays at night.’ ”

Arney decided to complete his degree before making the move, which he did in 1980, and then rejoined his friends in Chicago.

“Malkovich was casting the Lanford Wilson play ‘Balm in Gilead’ and said, ‘If you do come here, I’d like you to be in this play.’ ”

Arney acted in several plays and in ’84 became a full member of the ensemble, which is known for being an actors’ company. He also began to direct works at the theater.


In 1985, Gary Sinise, at the time the artistic director, asked Arney to take on the duties of associate artistic director. Then, when Sinise left for L.A. in 1987, Arney took the helm.

The transfer of power from one actor-artistic director to another was in keeping with Steppenwolf philosophy.

“We’ve always wanted somebody to be the artistic director of our theater who is from the inside, who is one of us, as opposed to bringing in an administrator to run it,” Arney says.

Starting in the late 1980s, Arney oversaw a busy period in the theater’s growth.

“It was a real creative time for the theater,” he says. “We took shows to Broadway and built a new theater from the ground up, which really ensured the permanence of Steppenwolf in Chicago.”

After the new theater opened, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” happened along and ended up being much more of a boon for the company than Arney or anyone had anticipated.

“We were going to run for just a few weekends, and it ended up running for about five months,” Arney says. “We were stunned by it. We hadn’t even looked at its commercial possibilities.”


Not surprisingly, the property switched into the hands of commercial producers before making its way to L.A.: Stephen Eich, who had been Steppenwolf’s managing director during Arney’s time as artistic director, and veteran L.A. theater producer Joan Stein. (Longtime New York-based producer Richard Martini joined the production at the beginning of the tour last year and completes the trio now at the helm of the touring company.)

When the play arrived in L.A. in 1994, The Times’ Laurie Winer praised Arney’s “arch and fluid direction,” saying, “Martin’s grapple with the art of playwriting is a worthy battle to behold.”

What was initially announced as a six-week engagement extended into a record 10-month run at the Westwood Playhouse--bolstered in part by an unusually aggressive promotional campaign that included many public events.

After L.A., Arney staged the play in New York and San Francisco. It was also remounted commercially in Chicago while it was still running in San Francisco.

In 1995, Arney, who had been spending less and less time in Chicago, decided to leave his post at Steppenwolf.

“I really felt that I had accomplished what I could as an administrator of that theater,” he says. “I had done the job for seven or eight years. When I started the job, if someone had told me I would have done it that long, I would’ve told them they were crazy.


“As our theater grew, the job of artistic director became less and less artistic and more administrative,” he continues. “When I took the job in 1987, our annual budget was about $200,000 to $300,000 a year. When I left the job, it was $5 million a year. We’d grown into quite a theater and an institution in Chicago, and so it was getting even more difficult for me to continue to act and direct.”

But simply leaving the job of artistic director wasn’t enough of a change.

“Obviously Steppenwolf remains a theatrical home, but this is the place to explore film work,” Arney says. “I’m very excited to get it all going. I’m thrilled to be here.”

“PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE,” Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 1. Prices: $32-$42. Phone: (213) 635-3500.