By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
On the evening of August 8, surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Los Padres National Forest, six scribes — Lee Blessing, Sherry Kramer, T.D. Mitchell, Ben Rosenthal, Len Jenkin and Christopher Trumbo — join a symposium at the ninth annual Ojai Playwrights Conference, which hopes to confront a somewhat existential question: What’s the point of being a playwright in 2006 America?
To a person, they see themselves as explorers with an obligation to challenge presumed truths. All concede that they’re swimming upstream against prevailing currents of commercial success, and a national media that they say is more interested in anesthetizing the population than informing it.
Trumbo, the son of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, remarks that the infamous McCarthy witch hunts were nothing new to America, even in the ’50s. Our national tradition of seeking enemies in every corner dates back to the Red scares of 1918-1919, Trumbo points out (17th-century Salem notwithstanding).
“Anything that questions the way the U.S. is organized tends to get suppressed and repressed,” he explains, before elaborating with the observation that we’re now paying the price for a national ambition that’s been in the making since the end of World War II — a standing army in more corners of the globe than ever before.
That such a huge army should be controlled by such a small cadre of men concerns many people in both liberal and conservative camps who might agree on little else, Trumbo adds.
Lee Blessing, the Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–nominated dramatist (A Walk in the Woods, Down the Road, Two Rooms), came to Ojai to hone his newest work, The Lonesome Hollow, a play set in the near future about an all-powerful government, the prohibition of thought, and a widespread “with us or against us” mentality.
Blessing says that he’s now writing his most confrontational plays, as the American empire expands and theaters become ever more conservative. “Watching the audiences grow more timorous dares me to challenge them not to come to my plays,” Blessing says.
“Historically, conservative elements of society don’t ask for difficult theater,” Blessing adds. “English theater took flight when the British Empire started collapsing. The dullest time in English theater was at the height of that empire. Good theater is about attacking the ways you look at everything.”
A skeptical audience member asks for whom, exactly, these dramatists think they are writing: “Are we forgetting the people in Kansas?”
“I’m not sure Kansas is clamoring for that many plays,” Blessing replies. “Kansas is very into musicals.”
The following afternoon in downtown L.A., a new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Curtains, premiered at the Ahmanson Theater. It’s their final musical, since Ebb died during the development process, as did Peter Stone, who originated the concept and wrote the first version of the book. (After Stone’s death, Rupert Holmes revised the book and worked with Kander on additional lyrics.)
In case you don’t pay attention to such things, Kander and Ebb are the team who so famously brought us Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) — and, less famously, Flora the Red Menace (1965); Happy Time (1968); 70, Girls, 70 (1971); and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992).
Curtains would do swell in Kansas — there’s even an Act 2 song called “Kansasland” — though the producers would prefer that it play on Broadway first. And, despite a cast of 27 and the cost of flying sets and a bazillion costumes, it’s so silly, wily, safely retro and spectacularly staged and performed that it just might make it to the Great White Way.
Agatha Christie meets Mel Brooks in this backstage murder mystery, set in 1959. A stage-struck Boston police detective (David Hyde Pierce) quarantines the entire ensemble of a dreary musical Western, Robbin’ Hood, inside the theater, after the awful leading lady (a heroic and brief performance by Patty Goble) collapses dead following the curtain call — this is the opening scene of Curtains.
What can the imprisoned cast and crew do but keep on rehearsing, since Robbin’ Hood is ostensibly Broadway-bound, despite being savaged by the theater critic of the Boston Globe (John Bolton). But the more the company rehearses, the more of them keep dropping dead or, in one instance, flying into the rafters attached to a noose.
The plot, if one dare call it that, is the thinnest excuse for a series of stage parodies that bring to mind Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway — an affectionate lampoon of show-biz traditions and vamps. When the powerhouse Deborah Monk, as coproducer Carmen Bernstein, belts out “Show People,” she’s channeling Ethel Merman crooning “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and the theft is gleeful. Then there are jokes about such thefts, about the creators of Robbin’ Hood being too squeamish to rip off a melody from Puccini’s La Bohème. (Rent did just that in 1996.)
Ebb’s lyrics and Holmes’ book mostly sizzle, though Carmen’s running quips about her husband’s lackluster sexual performance wear almost as thin as the plot device in which, for a chance at a second Boston Globe review, Carmen agrees to rework the entire musical in 24 hours, because any later won’t fit the critic’s schedule. As conceits go, that one’s particularly conceited.