Funny How Things Happen

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

John Rando takes comedy seriously. He'd better, because the former UCLA graduate student is fast making a national name for himself directing it.

"Right now, I'd say there are 10, or a dozen, first-rate stage directors alive and working in this country, and John Rando happens to be one of them," says humorist-playwright David Ives, with whom Rando has a long-standing working relationship, including five major productions. The playwright's "All in the Timing," seen at the Geffen Playhouse last season, was directed by Rando in a critically acclaimed production.

"In a profession that's wall-to-wall with charlatans, incompetents, psychopaths and foot fetishists--many of whom I've worked with--John stands out as being educated in the literature and prestidigitational in the craft," Ives enthuses.

"As a director who's acted, he understands actors. As somebody who's good at comedy, he understands humanity. As an Italian, he understands food."

Rando has directed at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, New York's Encore! series, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and other notable venues and currently is returning to the Geffen--the first director invited for a return engagement at the Westwood theater--to direct "Merton of the Movies," the 1922 comedy written by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, which opens Wednesday.

And next season, Rando is slated to stage Neil Simon's new play, "The Dinner Party," which will have its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.

Not bad for a 38-year-old who's making his reputation largely with the kind of plays often dismissed as light fare, compared to drama.

"When you look at the original thinking of what is indeed comic, it's that which is celebrated," says the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite director, seated in an upstairs conference room at the Geffen. "It's that which is shared. For me, the theater is a communal celebration of life. And that is to me the thrilling thing about theater."

In fact, a respect for comedy is something Rando also senses in "Merton of the Movies," which tells the classic tale of a rube who comes to Hollywood to break into the movies. "What I love about it is the sense that there is as much importance and greatness in comedy as there is in anything that is serious, the idea that what is funny is also serious and significant. And that very simple idea I felt was modern and great.

"A lot of my work is comic, not all of it, but yes I'm attracted to that, and this play seemed to speak to me in that way," he continues. "It's also a wonderful satire about silent movie-making, and I'm a big fan of that world."

Kaufman and Connelly were part of the famed Algonquin round-table in New York in the 1920s, and they collaborated on several comedies, of which "Merton of the Movies" was arguably the most successful. Based on a serialized novel by Harry Leon Wilson, published in the Saturday Evening Post, it is a comedy of errors with familiar archetypes, including a megalomaniacal director, an ambitious starlet and a motley crew of has-been character actors.

First staged at New York's Court Theatre, "Merton of the Movies" received a couple of major revivals during the 1970s, including a 1977 staging at the Ahmanson that featured Richard Thomas in the title role.

Rando first read the play two years ago, shortly after directing "Strike Up the Band" (book by Kaufman, adaptation by Ives) for Encore! At first, he was drawn to the play's romantic aspect. "One part of the play that was an attraction to me was the relationship between Merton, this simpleton with these dreams, who arrives in Hollywood and meets this gung-ho, smart, witty woman, and despite himself falls in love with her."

Upon closer inspection, however, Rando became even more impressed by the play's style. "There's the whole Kaufman sense of comic style that has to do with the wit, the language, the kind of verve that the play has, and the sensibility--its view of the way the world works."

To the uninitiated, that kind of style might seem dated, or unplayable, but not to Rando. "It has this commitment to the 'gosh, oh golly, gee-whiz' style," he says. "If you comment on it or if you ignore it, then it will seem dated. But if it's fully committed, it will feel fun.

"These guys actively chose to put this play in a stylized form. And if you embrace that, then the audience is able to recognize it as a valentine and appreciate it on that level. Kaufman, while he satirizes, he also celebrates, and I think that's the real genius of it."

The satire might even be considered social satire. "Obviously, that was a prosperous time, and they were poking fun at these rags-to-riches stories, because there were a lot of those stories going on then," Rando says. "That kind of wit is another thing that I found fascinating--something that points to the sense of really having to look at where all this prosperity can lead to in terms of the human psyche and human struggle."

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Rando, who is married and lives in New York, grew up in Houston, one of three children of an aerospace engineer and a homemaker. He studied theater in Austin at the University of Texas, then spent a year on a Fulbright fellowship studying theater in Germany and Italy. As a graduate student at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, he studied directing, earning his degree in 1988. Rando then went to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he served as an assistant director for a year and half. "I had a terrific time as an assistant. I was quite broke, but every second was worth it. That was the incubation period of my craft."

Around this same time, Rando went home for a family visit and found himself trying to explain the logic of his situation. "I come from a family that doesn't have any kind of artistic background, and where the theater and acting and directing were always looked at as a little odd," he says. "And during this time, although I was developing as a director, I was struggling financially."

Ultimately, however, the true value of what he was going through came in a lesson from his family. "I was being taken to the airport by my father, and we had this great conversation," Rando recalls. "My father, God bless him, he knew I was struggling, and he also knew I was doing well [in that] I was in a place where I was learning and growing. He said to me, 'I look at guys your age in my offices'--I was 30 at the time--'and they're sitting behind the desk, they're pushing paper. They have houses, they have cars, they have ex-wives, the whole thing. But you have one thing they don't have: You love what you do. And that's what you have to do.'

"That was the greatest gift, what he said. I think that's what Merton's about. For me personally, I think that's why I got attracted to the piece, because I really recognized the struggle."

Struggle is not as much in the present for Rando, particularly with gigs like the Simon play coming his way. "I'm really thrilled to be working with one of the greatest the American theater has," he says. "I'm very excited, obviously."

But Rando seems no less thrilled--and veritably Merton-like in his enthusiasm--about his current assignment. "The fact that I'm working here at this theater is a thrill to me," he says, referring to the strong ties between the Geffen and his alma mater, UCLA.

"I still feel very excited by the theater, and giddy about it."

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"MERTON OF THE MOVIES," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (special matinee July 21, 2 p.m.). Ends Aug. 1. Prices: $30-$40. Phone: (310) 208-5454.

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