Geffen Playhouse’s 2020-21 lineup will include Bryan Cranston’s stage directorial debut and the West Coast premiere of “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s epic gay drama, fresh off its Broadway run.
The season, which marks the theater’s 25th anniversary, also includes three world premieres, a new production of a classic Geffen play and the company’s first mentalist offering.
“We wanted to make sure we are honoring the past while simultaneously looking ahead to the next 25 years,” Geffen Artistic Director Matt Shakman said.
A revival of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” running Sept. 8-Oct. 11, kicks off the mainstage season. A 1997 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the play centers on a renowned teacher and her promising student — two writers who begin to blur the line between stories shared between friends and material sourced for personal gain.
The two-character drama was commissioned by South Coast Repertory and given its premiere there in 1996. The 1999 Geffen production was led by Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis, directed by Geffen Playhouse founder Gil Cates Sr. The play was the first of eight Margulies plays mounted at the Geffen to date.
“It’s ‘juicy’ in an old-fashioned sense, a story of a literary friendship made and sorely tested, and in director Gilbert Cates’ production, there’s juice aplenty,” wrote critic Michael Phillips at the time.
The 6 1/2-hour drama — which chronicles the legacy of the AIDS epidemic among young gay men in New York and is inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” — is the theater’s first presentation of a play in two parts, presented either over consecutive nights or as a matinee-and-evening viewing in a single day.
“It’s a logistical challenge for sure, as it was in London and on Broadway,” Shakman said in an interview. “But I love two-part plays like "[The Life and Adventures of] Nicholas Nickleby” and “Harry Potter [and the Cursed Child],” which give you this extended experience in an entire world. And when a play can hold your attention for six hours like Matthew’s can, it’s wonderful.”
Making its world premiere at the Geffen’s smaller auditorium, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, will be Matt Schatz’s “A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill” (Oct. 6-Nov. 15), developed in the Geffen’s new yearlong Writers’ Room program. Directed by Mike Donahue, the sung-through musical recounts how a 1994 murder ordered by Rabbi Fred Neulander upended a tightknit New Jersey community and left it disappointed by the disgraced religious leader and questioning the entirety of its faith.
“Not too many on the West Coast might know about it, but at the time, people were calling it O.J. [Simpson] East,” said Schatz, a New Jersey native. “But if I’m doing my job correctly, it doesn’t matter if you knew about it when it happened or not. This is not so much about the actual crime itself, but the small community reckoning with it after having put their faith in someone who turns out to be, well, not so great.”
Also premiering at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater is Emily Kaczmarek’s “Soft Target” (March 2-April 11), about a clever young girl who suddenly closes herself off from the world and her beloved toys trying to figure out what happened to the person at the center of their universe. Directed by Jo Bonney, the play — which Kaczmarek calls “a dark ‘Toy Story’” — is centered on a child’s experience of trauma and how imagination and creativity can be tools for healing.
“Without giving away too much, often when we talk about the violence in our culture, we’re just talking amongst ourselves as adults,” she told The Times. “And at times we might be talking about children and worrying about them — or making a show of worrying about them — but we’re not really stepping inside their perspectives of their events.
“I want people to walk away thinking about the wounds we don’t see and the victims of violence who don’t die but are nonetheless affected by these traumas for the rest of their lives. Particularly, children.”
The season also will include the West Coast premiere of Samuel Baum’s mystery “The Engagement Party” (Nov. 10-Dec. 13), directed by Darko Tresnjak, as well as the theater company’s first mentalist production — “Mindplay” (May 4-June 13, 2021) starring Vinny DePonto.
The season will close with a to-be-announced title helmed by Cranston (June 22-July 25, 2021). The actor — who won his second Tony Award last year for his performance in “Network” and has previously directed films and TV episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “Modern Family” — will be making his stage directorial debut with the Gil Cates Theater production.
“I was fortunate to perform onstage at the Geffen Playhouse in 2006, in a play written by Sam Shepherd and directed by Jason Alexander,” Cranston, referring to “The God of Hell,” said in a statement to The Times. “I cherish the memory of that experience, and the tremendous support the Geffen provides its creative teams.
“The opportunity to step into directing a play, an arena I have not fully explored, was an offer I couldn’t ignore. ... I’m very excited about the chance to reach great success or fail miserably. The possibility of either is what makes it thrilling.”
One additional production for the main stage will be announced later. Season ticket packages are available online, and single tickets for all productions will be available this summer.
The Geffen hopes the lineup appeals to longtime subscribers and first-time attendees.
“For some companies, getting to 25 years may be a no-brainer, but for a nonprofit theater in Westwood, this is the dream,” said Geffen Playhouse Executive Director Gil Cates Jr.
“I’m glad there’s a mixture of things the Geffen is known for, but also some world premieres and our first two-parter. These are bigger swings we’re taking in the hope of bringing more people into the theater, which is always our goal.”