Los Angeles can be careless with its history, unsentimentally bulldozing the past to make room for the future. Unlike certain cities I could mention -- Athens, say, or Rome -- Los Angeles could never be accused of hoarding.
While I admire its insouciance, I also love discovering the occasional pocket of yesteryear that L.A. hasn’t yet bagged up and hauled out to the curb. Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s world premiere of “The Princes of Kings Road,” by Tom Lazarus, is one of these rare time capsules.
The play is staged at the Neutra Institute and Museum of Silver Lake, a building designed by titan of modern architecture Richard Neutra. It dramatizes a late-life hospital-room encounter between Neutra (Raymond Xifo) and his fellow architectural titan Rudolph Schindler (John Nielsen). Its soundtrack is a recording of Neutra’s wife, Dione, playing the cello.
Neutra and Schindler first met in their native Vienna; both eventually made their way to the United States and worked, during different periods, for Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the late 1920s, they formed a business partnership and worked and lived together, with their wives, in the famous house on Kings Road (known as the Schindler House, it’s now a museum) that Schindler had designed as an experiment in communal living.
This idyll didn’t last: Neutra and Schindler had a falling out, parted ways and didn’t speak for 23 years. Then, by chance, in 1953, at the end of Schindler’s life, they met again as patients in a Cedars of Lebanon hospital room. In “The Princes of Kings Road,” Lazarus, who also directs this production, imagines what might have gone down in that room.
The result may not be gripping, edge-of-your-seat theater. Dramatically it resembles those re-creations that schoolchildren are trundled in to watch at historical sites. The set is minimal: Two old-fashioned hospital beds and some evocative period props.
There is a screen for slide projections, which when not showing photos of blueprints and houses pretends to be a window on 1950s midtown L.A. The two architects are impersonated by wonderfully engaging performers whose charm makes up for both their pro-forma Austrian accents and the script’s creaky exposition.
When they first encounter each other, the men erupt into red-faced outrage. The plot’s dutiful shill, Nurse Rothstein (Heather Robinson), has all she can do to calm them down. But soon enough they regain their composure and begin to reminisce.
Although Nurse Rothstein comes generously equipped with her own small subplot -- she really wants to be a stewardess -- her main role is to guide these fellows down memory lane. At first she keeps trying to leave the room -- “I do have other patients, you know” -- but she can’t deny the pull of their nostalgia. Soon enough she is hanging on each anecdote and prompting them for more, becoming an aficionado of modernist architecture. “I think I finally understand what a new architectural language is,” she eventually announces.
By then, the audience is experiencing the same transformation. Lazarus’ engagement with the topic is infectious. Modernist architecture, bold experiments in steel and glass and concrete, is thrillingly romantic.
The men’s conversation, learned but accessible, is laced with a gentle, ironic humor and conveys their different personalities. Nielsen’s Schindler is stiff, pompous, conceited, bitter, an unapologetic womanizer, with a soft heart. Xifo’s Neutra is rosy, conciliatory and playful, with mischievously twinkling eyes. From time to time their accents evoke the Nazis captors in “Hogan’s Heroes:” “My vife is a vonderful voman.” “To vin! It is everysing!"
But many historical figures grow broader in the afterlife, and exquisite subtlety is a small price to pay for an experience this unusual and illuminating. The headlong rush into the future is hard to resist, but stopping to look back has its own rewards.
“The Princes of Kings Road,” Neutra Institute and Museum of Silver Lake, 2379 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays (some exceptions; see website for complete schedule). Ends Oct. 4. $25. (323) 641-7747 or www.ThePrincesofKingsRoad.com. Running time: 1 hour.