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You Can’t Take It With You 

A fable of heroic ambiguity

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
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Photo by Maria Miller

Immortality may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Beside minor irritants like having to constantly update wardrobes and buy new address books, there is that ever-accumulating weight of memory and regret with which to contend. With an endless lifetime lying ahead, the average person would be more than tempted to indefinitely put off tackling his or her growing list of noble resolutions. This last point might be one of the lessons learned from Susan Rubin’s intriguing parable Immortality, presented by the Indecent Exposure Theater Company and now playing its final weekend at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

Rubin’s story, which is loosely adapted from Simone de Beauvoir’s novel All Men Are Mortal, begins and ends during rehearsals for a Broadway musical called Blood Rites. This fictional production is no Cats, however, but a special-effects extravaganza that examines humanity’s appetite for destruction — a violent yet politically airbrushed history lesson about great moments of conquest, slavery and slaughter. Heading the cast will be a bundle of superstitious tics named Lysette (Kaitlin Hopkins), a diva requiring superhuman pampering from the show’s second-tier director, Michael (Michael Kostroff), and its starry-eyed ingénue, Ana (Kenna Ramsey). Michael, however, has a bigger problem before rehearsals even start: Lysette’s co-star, Jonathan, has simultaneously committed to a four-week run at a rehab center, a setback which the dissembling director and his hapless stage manager, Lucky (James Sie), gloss over to the point of outright denial.

No matter, for in walks a mysterious stranger named William (John Vargas), who quickly insinuates himself into Lysette’s affections by writing her a flattering poem — and into the production by reading for the absent Jonathan. It turns out that while William may not be a professional actor, he’s been around the block a few times and then some, having become immortal during the Spanish Inquisition and having seen a fair amount of misery and knavery unfold between then and now. Because of this, he brings to the table a creative suggestion or two about the script, which he dismisses as so much intellectual morphine. No, William hasn’t lived all this long and fought tyranny so often to let his experiences be trivialized by a Vegas piffle like Blood Rites — he’s been “building power bases . . . writing notes, critiques, analyses.” “Progress? I see no progress,” he fumes when Lysette suggests that the world may be showing signs of improvement. In reply to her inevitable, what-was-it-like? questions about the past, William sneers, “We had no time for culture.”

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At this point, we begin to silently groan, figuring that William the Lofty is actually William the pain in the ass — uncomfortably resembling those people who always corner us at parties to confide that they regard Columbus, Jefferson and Eichmann as one. Most ominously, it occurs to us that William is the playwright’s alter ego and the character we’re supposed to be cheering on. It’s not that we don’t agree with many of his philosophical tenets, but something tells us that he is more ideologue than philosopher, and we know, even if he apparently doesn’t, that the road from Athens to Auschwitz is paved with what the futurist Filippo Marinetti proclaimed “beautiful ideas that kill.”

But then Rubin takes a wonderfully unexpected turn by bringing William down to earth in a big way — and making him almost heroically vulnerable in the process. After becoming Lysette’s lover and promising to secretly rewrite his own version of Blood Rites that he will spring on Michael at a critical moment, William suddenly reveals the cold-blooded, selfish origin of his eternal life — and the fact that those rewrites won’t be coming in any time soon. William, who had seemed so much the existential homme engagé, is in fact a past master of bad faith — someone who talks a great game about liberating humanity from its lies and violence, but who will never do anything about it.

It is here that we notice a possible correlation between William and Michael. William can barely bring himself to breathe the same air as lying, denying Michael, yet the director is someone who, however shamefully, creates art, while William is condemned to exist in a twilight world of dreamy criticism. However, far from being dialectical opposites, the two men really complement each other: Michael is a survivor who relies on trickery and cunning to achieve some half-decent ends, never hesitating to eat shit when that’s what life serves him. On the other hand, William, for all his inaction, is at least able to use his words to inspire Ana into accepting an idealistically alternative view of art.

Nothing announces the play’s shift in tone — which accompanies William’s exposure — as loudly as when we see, toward play’s end, William’s determination to follow Lucky’s inchoate rehearsal calls, as though by taking direction he can overlook his failure to subvert Blood Rites’ vulgar lies. Blood Rites itself is a production whose pyrotechnical stagecraft is so dangerous that members of the crew are constantly being ambulanced off or evacuated. If we have any doubt as to the moral vacuum that passes for its heart, we only have to consider the rehearsals for a musical scene in which Ana will fly over the stage, nude, above flames that have consumed a sorority of accused witches.

Rubin has a lot to say about the state of theater, human nature and our perceptions of history, and she expresses her views through the buffoonish Michael as well as through stern William. The opportunity is not lost on Kostroff, who makes the most of his part as a stage director who is a turtlenecked tyrant to his subordinates, a sateen-voiced yes man to those who pay his rent and, at the end of the day, as big an actor as anyone in Blood Rites.

Yet this production totally belongs to Hopkins, an actor who can say so much with a thrust of chin or flutter of eyelashes. She is almost too mesmerizing for the play’s own good, so dominating our attention that we forget we are watching a play of ideas instead of an acting tour de force. For Hopkins doesn’t merely shine as the spoiled diva; her Lysette undergoes a transformation and decides, for the sake of her career, to ignore it.

Immortality, which is directed by Laural Meade with an appreciation for both its comedy and its politics, has technical drawbacks, not the least of which is its division into three acts (its actual running time is little more than two hours), a decision forced, one hopes, by the limitations of LATC’s Theater 4 and not by the playwright’s insistence. And, despite his laconic stage presence, Vargas was stumbling on some of his lines three weeks into the run — the last thing a play about actors needs. The real shame is that on the night I attended there were only perhaps a dozen audience members, making one wonder where all the boosters of L.A. theater go when something truly original appears. A work like this deserves attention, so please note that there are only two performances left before, like William, it becomes history.

IMMORTALITY | By SUSAN RUBIN | Presented by INDECENT EXPOSURE THEATER COMPANY | At Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown | Through July 1
Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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