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In Search of a Play of One’s Own

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

This isn’t a crisis story. It’s about matters more ambiguous: perception, image and that elusive commodity, reputation.

We are midway through the Mark Taper Forum’s 2000-01 season. There’s something epic in the very sound of that phrase--"2000-01 season,” like a ship’s prow braving unknown waters.

Epics come in various sizes. Two of the best-realized productions seen this year at the Taper, or anywhere in Los Angeles, were Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” modestly scaled and quietly enveloping, and August Wilson’s “Jitney,” minor doings from a major playwright but wonderfully enacted.

They were Taper shows, though “bookings” might be closer to the mark. They came from elsewhere, they conquered and then they left.

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And they left the Taper’s certifiably local work looking pretty pale by comparison. When a job-in such as “Metamorphoses,” however elegant, scoops up a lion’s share of kudos, there’s a bittersweetness involved. I loved it. But it was Taper-hosted, not Taper-produced.

“Metamorphoses,” a series of fantastical myths by Ovid retold for the stage, enjoyed success before L.A. in Chicago, Seattle and Berkeley. “Jitney"--not Wilson’s first full-length play, as everyone seemed intent on reporting--played several cities in several productions in recent years. The version at the Taper (directed by Marion McClinton, who staged Wilson’s newest work, “King Hedley II,” also at the Taper) was somewhat revised by Wilson, as part of a de facto Taper-to-off-Broadway tryout. “Jitney” closes in New York on Jan. 28.

Such projects--imports, exports, import-exports, co-productions of all kinds--have become the rule, not the exception, at many nonprofits nationwide. Many people, including Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson, might argue: Why not? An adventurous show’s point of origin or a commercially minded project’s New York prospects matter a lot less when the work is worth seeing. And if the show in question is heading toward Manhattan and there’s a percentage to be had, all the better. Case in point: Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party,” now a financial success on Broadway.

No one’s arguing the importance of finances. Job-ins, co-productions and New York hopefuls act as ports in a storm. They make a lot of sense on paper. Davidson is famously enthusiastic in his multiple roles as booker, broker, frontman, middleman, artist and administrator. Deals are simply the deal these days, in this time--a long time indeed--of paltry federal subsidy from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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It’s a time of increasingly fluid borders separating the commercial world from the not-for-profit world. (Naming rights for this article, in fact, are available for purchase--the Bed Bath & Beyond Commentary, perhaps.) It’s a time in which a big-name mediocrity, such as “The Dinner Party,” can try out under a nonprofit banner before moving on to tryout No. 2 at another nonprofit house (the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.) before scoring a solid commercial success on Broadway.

This is what we see at the Taper and elsewhere, increasingly, at one major regional house after another, in the name of survival and nonprofit-commercial “synergy.”

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The Taper is the acknowledged flagship of the big L.A. nonprofit stages. It is a primary player nationally. Yet this year, especially, the Taper seemed like a two-tier operation--two different theaters internally at odds. One Taper lent its name, resources and reputation to projects born or heading elsewhere. The other Taper went about its business, rather routinely.

Last year at the Taper, there were the “big,” “outside” projects--"The Dinner Party” (which opened in December 1999) and the August Wilson plays chief among them. On the same stage, struggling for attention, were the “other” shows, including a world premiere by L.A.'s Robert Glaudini, “The Poison Tree.” A disappointment, and worse, it was a play by someone with far more interesting material in his desk drawer.

Taper producing director Robert Egan sponsored that project, then undercut it with an uncertain staging. More recently, Egan staged the regional premiere of Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” hampered by the not-quite-star casting of Rebecca De Mornay. (Similarly, “The Poison Tree” starred Anne Archer, game but indistinct.) Both productions felt like work not quite up to big-league standard. Directorial competence isn’t the same thing as excellence.

I’m not sure either script really belonged on the Taper stage to begin with. Glaudini’s better works warrant Taper support, however, especially on a second stage, if the Taper actually had one. Ten years ago, people were complaining about the Taper’s lack of a second stage. It is now the 21st century. We aren’t talking about that many millions of dollars. Without an active and risk-prone second stage, a theater has no artistic safety valve. No safety valve, and you start sensing the economic pressure affecting every main stage effort.

The productions of “Metamorphoses,” “Jitney” and the problematic but passionately acted “King Hedley II” were world-class. The Taper’s “other” shows didn’t feel the same way. With “The Poison Tree” and “Closer” and Lisa Loomer’s “Expecting Isabel,” the Taper offered theatergoers nice-looking productions loaded with design savvy and surface sheen. But too often, you didn’t feel as if you were watching work that mattered enough, that paid off either as provocation or escapism.

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Since 1989, Davidson has run the Taper and the neighboring Music Center house, the Ahmanson, simultaneously. It is a task that would exhaust someone half Davidson’s age. Some cycles are more tiring than others: With the cancellation this month of the Ahmanson’s “Flower Drum Song” revival, Davidson was required to cast the net yet again for a replacement. (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a hit at La Jolla Playhouse and currently eyeing a fall Broadway opening, was an early replacement prospect, though it’s unlikely at this point.) Other recent Ahmanson scratches include “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” owing to the death of director Mike Ockrent, and “Finian’s Rainbow,” replaced by “James Joyce’s The Dead.”

These things happen; sometimes they happen in clumps. Scrambling can lead to serendipity if you’re lucky. Last year, the Peter Parnell play “Tuva or Bust!,” starring Alan Alda as Caltech physicist Richard Feynman, was on the Taper season, then off: more time needed. Its replacement turned out to be the justly heralded “Metamorphoses.” Now Davidson is preparing the Parnell play for its world premiere staging, due to open March 22.

In a recent New York Times story, Davidson acknowledged the tribulations of 2000. “What I’m worried about,” he said, is not institutional stability; it’s quality. The year, he said, has been cause for a certain amount of “artistic angst.”

He’s not alone. But a leading regional flagship must lead. It needs more than one fully active full-time theater to call its own. It must persuade funders and politicians of its need to grow, as well as its responsibility to challenge its audience anew.

Right now the Taper’s rep is as a well-sprung tryout pad, able to launch Broadway or off-Broadway hopefuls with ease. Everyone wants in on this action: In Minneapolis, the Guthrie Theater’s forthcoming “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” starring Patrick Stewart and Mercedes Ruehl, may well head to New York, much as the Chicago Goodman Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman” eventually played Broadway as well as the Ahmanson.

Even if Davidson, who is now 67, continues to run both the Taper and the Ahmanson another year or two or longer, his staff must pour everything it has into reaffirming the Taper’s standards of excellence. The Taper can and should present outside projects under its good name. But the Taper must commit more of its creative resources to that “other” part of the season, to the shows L.A. can--and must--truly claim as its own.

Strong, home-grown work that matters. Is there a better way to maintain a reputation?

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