Continental Divisiveness: New York and L.A. Theater 

Separated by common values

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

In his 1998 essay “Bowing Out,” Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote about the cultural lurch toward mediocrity when supremely gifted actors fail to stand up for their artistry — part of Feingold’s years-long effort to contend with the ravages of commerce on the higher purpose of the theater.

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click to enlarge They say the neon lights ...
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They say the neon lights ...

About actors, Feingold wrote, “Masters on the stage, they are petty servants behind the scenes, bowing to agents, managers, casting directors, producers, or any Hollywood half-wit waving a 13-week contract at them, which is why Los Angeles is the Bermuda Triangle of American acting.” If a toilet fails to flush on Eighth Avenue, Feingold blames Los Angeles. He’s not alone, but merely a charter member of a cadre of national critics who have been attacking Los Angeles as the embodiment of everything that’s gone awry in America since 1963. Also in the Voice, arts editor Brian Parks once complained about the inflated hyperbole of a show coming in from L.A. Maybe L.A.’s standards are so low, he conjectured, L.A. critics and audiences gush over work that’s merely competent. “Whatever,” he humphed.

A scene in Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy The Little Dog Laughed, which closed on Broadway last year, captures the prevailing attitude. In it, one character, a Hollywood talent manager, quips that Los Angeles has solved the problem of cell phones in the theater. “We’ve simply stopped doing theater altogether.” The joke drew one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Some facts that would seem to belie this caricature of Los Angeles:

Curtains, which ends its 15-month Broadway run in June, was born in L.A. at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run at Manhattan Theatre Club, was commissioned by, and born at, South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa.

Off-Broadway, Bruce J. Robinson’s play Another Vermeer will have opened at Abingdon Theatre Company as this article goes to press. It premiered at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills earlier this year.

Last season, New York’s Primary Stages presented an autobiographical play by Athol Fugard, Exits and Entrances, that was respectfully received there. It was born at Hollywood’s tiny Fountain Theatre, with Fugard in residence.

The previous season, Julia Sweeney’ssolo show, Letting Go of God, was a hit at New York’s Arts Nova. She developed and premiered it at the Groundlings Theatre on Melrose, where Sweeney was a sketch-comedy performer for years.In his 1998 love-letter New York Times review of Oliver Goldstick’s play with music, Dinah Was, which ran off-Broadway at the W.P.A. Theater, Peter Marks makes no reference to the show’s having debuted at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, or its leading lady’s (Yvette Freeman) having premiered the role in that L.A. production, where it garnered a slew of rave reviews and awards. (Goldstick says that he was pressured by “those in charge” in New York to remove all references to the L.A. production, plus his own writing credits for TV, from his bio.)

Yet in 2001, The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, while savaging Reefer Madness, a stage parody of the film, makes specific reference to the show’s being a cult hit in Los Angeles. However, in his review of Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, which Isherwood liked, there is no mention of the production’s L.A. origins (it, too, employed the same cast and director as in L. A.). Still, in that review, Isherwood does make a generous reference to the fine Morlan Higgins as “a Los Angeles actor making his New York debut.”

Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Curtains last year (with the same cast and director as in L.A.) also makes no reference to the show’s L.A. origins. Then again, it’s not a particularly enthusiastic review — a hurdle that the production was able to circumvent at the box office.

One could easily conclude that when an L.A. production in New York is well-received, the originating city is rarely mentioned, but when such a show is attacked, critics salivate at the opportunity to skewer L.A. as well. But is this just West Coast petulance? Are productions from, say, Chicago, Seattle or London subjected to the same treatment? And if there is a predisposition against L.A. theater, does it damage the viability of shows rolling into New York from Southern California? Rob Kendt, who has taken a New York job with Theatre Development Fund since resigning as editor of Back Stage West, argues that New York is not hostile to L.A., but hostile to shows from anywhere that come in with too much hype.

That’s not really true, says Rick Miramontez, New York publicist, of O & M Co. (Miramontez once ran a public-relations firm in L.A.) He cites the production of Hairspray that pulled into New York from Seattle with waves of “perfectly orchestrated” hype, and New York loved it. Had that same machine been operating for an L.A. production, he says, there would have been far more resistance to it. The NYC bias against L.A. is real, and it’s bad for business, Miramontez says. He advises clients who are considering bringing productions in from Los Angeles to downplay all L.A. credits. Outlying Southern California cities are not subjected to the same treatment, he says.

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