It opens jauntily enough, as ensemble members parade about carrying framed title cards announcing their names -- a gimmick that is coyly repeated throughout the evening as the placards announce shifts in time and place. This choreography, shouldered by a syncopated piano accompaniment, suggests more than walking playbills, as it neatly evokes the nativity and naiveté of silent movies and the period's ragtime optimism for the dawning 20th century. Still, we begin to wonder, isn't it a bit ironic for theater to celebrate the art form that would eventually replace it in popularity? That thought is quickly forgotten, however, when we come to a larger realization, namely that we are witnessing something special, something that will be talked and faxed about for weeks. This something turns out to be a big, hideous misfire, one that reverberates all the louder because it occurs on the city's most important stage.
On paper at least, nothing about The First Picture Show sets off alarms: The subject matter isn't inherently dubious, and neither is the authors' choice to sculpt that material into a musical. (The musicals Ragtime and Titanic were cute, weren't they?) For the record, Ain and David Gordon's book focuses on the Furstmanns, a family of Ohio Jews whose lives become fatefully linked to the movies just as films evolve from arcade novelty to two-reel features. Anne (Ellen Greene) is the young woman who dreams of becoming a screen actress, while older brother Louis (Steven Skybell) is content, for a while, to build a regional chain of theaters. Everything is warm and huggy in the family home, but while Ohio may be heaven for the Furstmanns, all truly interesting stories take place in some earthly hell, which is to say most of The First Picture Show is set in Los Angeles. It is to L.A. that Anne flees from the Midwestern steppes and transforms herself into Anne First. (Look again at the title.) Here she becomes a star before realizing her true ambition in life when, in an orgasmic moment of clarity, she utters the words that will become this city's cri de coeur: "I want to direct!"
Anne gets her wish, surprisingly, and before long is shooting her first film. She couldn't have chosen a worse project, however, because it is a movie version (replayed for us by Anne's film actors) of most of what we've just seen -- Ohio life in the house of Furstmann. Why the Gordons, père and fils, imagined theater audiences would want to watch a rerun of what's just been staged is anyone's guess, but this false start is the least of their problems.
Teamed with Anne's story is a recitation of accomplishments and obstacles that female and minority directors, writers and actors faced in Hollywood during the age of the silents. We learn about these thanks to Louis' great-granddaughter, Jane (Greene), who in 1995 discovers his long-lost diary, and soon tracks down the now-99-year-old Anne (Estelle Parsons) to an industry retirement home. The crusty Parsons does not want to talk at first, but grudgingly opens the door to her past, which, along with Jane's interviews of the home's other aged professionals, provides the show with its history lessons.
And bitter lessons they are, as one by one the old folks end their stories of movie-pioneer glory with the way they were eventually silenced or cast aside. Not only that, but during some of the show's many flashbacks we see how the country's self-appointed censors continually attacked what they believed to be the immorality of Hollywood's output. The big problem is that the information dispensed in this overlong evening could be encapsulated in a few pages of program notes -- and it is, on Page P-6 in an essay by Cari Beauchamp.
If nothing else, The First Picture Show and its program inform us about the surprising numbers of minorities, women -- and minority women as well -- who worked for studios or who even founded their own. This unheard-of opportunity mostly came to an end with the great studio consolidations of the 1920s, and the rigid corpora- tization they brought. Unfortunately, the Gordons fail to work these and other facts organically into their book and instead turn the stage into an elementary school classroom, giving us data rather than a story, declamations in place of confessions. (The scenes involving the religious moralists are particularly one-dimensional.)
You know the play's in trouble when Jane utters a coffeehouse aphorism like, "History does not happen linear," as though she were addressing a summer camp for New Age liberals. David Gordon recently defended his ham-fisted approach on KPCC radio, by explaining it mimicked the unsophisticated techniques of the silents themselves, but this sounds suspiciously like an alibi instead of an artistic vision.
YOU'D THINK A TAPER PRODUCTION WOULD HAVE enough razzle-dazzle to compensate for the writing's leaden touch, but this is not the case. Everything on Robert Brill's graphite-toned set, including Judith Dolan's drab costumes and Jennifer Tipton's lighting (which inexplicably favors bringing up the house lights periodically), creates a black hole that sucks away the audience's energy and enthusiasm. (After the show, I felt as though I had spent the last two and a half hours wandering around Home Depot.)
Director Gordon's embarrassing use of slo-mo choreography seems less an homage to film technique than an expression of this show's lethargy, which Jeanine Tesori's faux-Sondheim, faux-ragtime score does nothing to conceal. No amount of fast-forwarding or music can breathe vitality into some of the key performances. Greene proves herself doubly irritating in the roles of the young Anne, whose lines she delivers in a kind of babyspeak, and of the unfulfilled TV-ad director Jane, who interviews the retirement-home residents with the kind of silly cooing one normally hears in a pet store.
The biggest letdown is Parsons, who, trapped in both a wheelchair and this thankless role, is only allowed to play cute, as though she or Gordon senior does not trust the audience with absorbing any subtler readings of anger and regret. This is nowhere more painfully clear than at the very end, when Parsons' face, projected on a huge video screen (another big mistake, but who's counting?), concludes her didn't-we-have-fun? speech by striking a googly-eyed pose.
Like all too many plays, The First Picture Show presumes to re-create a past armed with the hindsight and political allergies of the present. "How unfair they were back then" is the only conclusion we're allowed to draw from this mess, never dreaming that decades from now our own beliefs and habits will be subject to similar condemnation by whatever artistic Nuremberg holds court then. History may not be linear, but it can be a vindictive son of a bitch.
THE FIRST PICTURE SHOW | Book and lyrics by AIN and DAVID GORDON Music by JEANINE TESORI | Directed and choreographed by DAVID GORDON | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through September 16