A place at the table with some '30s luminaries

Times Staff Writer

March 29, 1933, was an eventful day for George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte.

The small airplane that flew them from Northern California to Los Angeles became fogbound and made an emergency landing on the beach near Malibu. The two septuagenarians hitched a ride from a passing UCLA student and reached the MGM studio in time for its boss, Louis B. Mayer, to give them a tour. Reporters turned out in droves. Shaw, the genius playwright, ardent socialist and caustically quipping Anglo-Irish public intellectual, was on his first and only trip to the United States.

Lunch ensued with Mayer, Clark Gable, John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin among the Shaws' tablemates. The host and hostess were William Randolph Hearst and his actress mistress, Marion Davies. She supervised the spread in the 14-room bungalow Hearst had built for her at MGM. Davies served chicken -- a major faux pas, as the guest of honor was a strict vegetarian.

About three years ago, Mark Saltzman came across a photograph of that uneasy luncheon while he was browsing in a Studio City bookstore, and he quickly saw the makings of a play. The Los Angeles playwright, whose main ambition was the theater even while he was notching seven Emmys as a member of the "Sesame Street" writing team during the 1980s, previously conjured up an imaginary encounter between Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin for "The Tin Pan Alley Rag," which premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997.

Now, with "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood," premiering Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, Saltzman lets his comic imagination flesh out a factual episode. His Hollywood icons engage in various forms of show-biz infighting -- including much angling for the film rights to Shaw's greatest hit, "Pygmalion" -- while the intellectual giant cracks his wit at them like a lion tamer keeping the beasts at bay.

Saltzman and director Daniel Henning, longtime artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood, were so enthusiastic and thorough in their research that even some of their inventions turned out to be close to the truth.

In one scene, Saltzman imagined Shaw tweaking Mayer with the suggestion that MGM film "Saint Joan" with Shirley Temple as Joan of Arc. Then Nicolas Coster, who plays Shaw, brought in a book of interviews by his journalist father, Ian Coster. There was Shaw wisecracking in real life about Temple being ripe to play the Egyptian queen in his "Caesar and Cleopatra."

"You try to lie, and it ends up being true. It gets frustrating," Saltzman quipped, before acknowledging that there's genuine satisfaction in being able to feed lines to a great comic playwright and have them turn out to be truly Shavian.

Kermit to Barrymore

Faced with the challenge of writing sharp dialogue for Shaw, Barrymore, Gable and the rest, Saltzman was able to draw on all those years he spent feeding lines to Oscar the Grouch and Kermit the Frog.

Writing musicals was his main ambition after he graduated from Cornell in 1973 and headed to Manhattan. But he paid the bills with whatever assignments came along -- including freelancing for Muppet magazine. Jim Henson, the Muppets' creator, liked Saltzman's print dialogue and invited him to write for "Sesame Street."

"You have the most fidgety audience in the world -- preschoolers -- and it's pounded into you that you must entertain, you must captivate in order to teach," Saltzman says.

The lesson from kiddie television continues to inform his playwriting. "I like bringing Shaw into the popular mind. Here's something I love and I want people to share. So I'd better entertain them. As soon as I start a new sentence, I'm thinking, 'What's going to hold them?' "

Saltzman's account of Shaw's visit to MGM provides a jumping-off point for much satire about the movie business, all of it as germane to 2003 as to 1933. Shaw -- dryly -- and Barrymore -- drunkenly -- expatiate on how Hollywood lucre corrupts artistry. Jokes about the lowly lot of the screenwriter abound. But Saltzman, whose own screenwriting credits include the animal story "The Adventures of Milo and Otis" (1986) and "Mrs. Santa Claus," a 1996 TV musical starring Angela Lansbury, keeps the commentary light and resists any temptation to portray media potentates Mayer and Hearst as heavies. "I have no ax to grind," he says. "I just kept my head down and wrote what I found."

One thing he was delighted to find in his research was that, contrary to her portrayal in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," Marion Davies was not a talentless weakling. Saltzman was charmed by her, and he wrote her as meaty a role as Shaw's.

"There's this post-"Citizen Kane" rap that she was an idiot and under Hearst's thumb. But she was smart, she was business-savvy, she was a Brooklyn girl who never lost the common touch, and one of the things Hearst probably liked about her was that she gave as good as she got in their battles."

Henning jumped on "Mr. Shaw" as soon as Saltzman told him the idea over the phone. They refined the script through readings at the Blank in 2000 and 2001, but Henning decided it deserved a bigger, more lavish forum than his 53-seat house could provide. The 420-seat Laguna Playhouse affords the scale and budget to give the show's Hollywood glitz a chance to glitter.

"It's got enough historical accuracy to make you think, 'Yeah, it could have happened that way,' " says Andrew Barnicle, the playhouse's artistic director. "He's taking traditional ideas about characters like Barrymore and ratcheting them up so they become the extreme people we like to think they were."

"Mr. Shaw" arrives at a bittersweet time for Saltzman.

At 51, his career is thriving. "The Tin Pan Alley Rag," after runs at several regional houses, is headed for a New York premiere off-Broadway next fall or winter. And critics in Miami and New Jersey recently hailed Saltzman's new musical, "Romeo and Bernadette," as "just about irresistible," an entertainment that "could knock 'em dead on Broadway." Its fantasy conceit is something like "West Side Story" meets "The Sopranos" -- a fable in which Shakespeare's Romeo doesn't die, but goes into suspended animation and wakes up in a 1960 Brooklyn mob milieu. The tunes are floridly emotional old Italian songs Saltzman outfitted with fresh lyrics. He eagerly expects to immerse himself exclusively in theater for the rest of this year, and, if things go well, for several more to come.

But Saltzman must proceed without Arnold Glassman, his domestic partner of 23 years, who died of cancer on Feb. 19. Glassman, 56, was a documentary filmmaker whose credits include co-directing "Visions of Light," a lauded 1992 account of the development of cinematography. Saltzman says Glassman was an astute guide while he was researching "Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood," his first nonmusical play. "I knew he was going to love this play, and I made it a gift to him."

Saltzman is grateful to be occupied now with the job of honing the show, and he says it helps to be working with Henning, a good friend since they met at the Blank five years ago. "It's very intensive work. Having Daniel by me, who's a good friend, and keeping the intensity up is what keeps me from drifting to sad thoughts."

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'Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: May 4

Price: $42-$49

Contact: (949) 497-2787

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