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
That first season of 1967 included two world premieres: Romulus Linney’s The Sorrows of Frederick, and Oliver Hailey’s Who’s Happy Now? Tucked around them was German expressionist Friederich Dürrenmatt’s The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi and the West Coast premiere of John Whiting’s The Devils. Nobody could accuse Davidson of coasting out of the starting gate. The following season, he programmed five plays — again, two were world premieres (A.R. Gurney Jr.’s The Golden Fleece and, somewhat ironically, John Guare’s Muzeeka); a third production was the U.S. premiere of Heinar Kippart’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
That’s five new plays in two seasons — and on just one stage (and only four stalls in the women’s bathroom). From the start, it was clear where Davidson was headed. It was that lucid ambition and purpose that led to the Pulitzer Prizes eventually rolling his way for plays like Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
That kind of clarity and focus has not yet emerged from his successor, Michael Ritchie, who is responsible for programming CTG’s three venues: the Taper, Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters. On all three stages, his fall season will have included only one world premiere, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5: The Musical(see New Reviews), andthat was spun from the movie. Everything else is an importor retread. The degree of risk has been substantially scaled back, and risk is what moves the art forward. (To give credit where it’s due, another new musical, Minsky’s, is scheduled for the Ahmanson in early 2009, and one new play, Richard Montoya’s Palestine, New Mexico, is slated for the Taper’s spring season.)
Ritchie has rescued CTG financially — no easy task. But balancing the books is not the larger part of his task. (That’s what the managing director is for.) He’s shown a striking capacity for the kind of risk-taking that earns or sustains the reputation of a theater beyond shiny new faucets and freshly shampooed carpets. Examples include the premiere of Montoya’s Water & Power on the Taper’s main stage — a new script that was being developed right into previews — and Douglas Steinberg’s Nighthawks. The latter had been sitting around unproduced for years. That didn’t prevent Ritchie from doing it at the Kirk Douglas — his primary reason being that he believed in it, the best reason for doing anything in the theater. The man is obviously no coward. That’s why the symbolism of reopening the Taper with The House of Blue Leaves is so disheartening. And why it arouses qualms that the Taper is sliding into the fiscal security of what the French call “Boulevard Theater” — with the majority of works flirting with difficult ideas but really tilting to feed complacency rather than submitting a serious response to our troubled times. What’s to become of the Taper if the Wall Street “repair” so tightens lines of credit that arts benefactors hold on to more of their cash? If the current season is so bereft of risk-taking and its accompanying commitment to “further advance the art of theater,” what will the lineup look like two years from now?
There’s no shortage of feisty, impudent and even brilliant ideas on our own smaller stages, plays by the likes of our own Tom Jacobson (whose gentle The Friendly Hour just opened at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre), or San Francisco scribe Adriano Shaplin, whose perverse military comedy Pugilist Specialist is being presented at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre by VS. Theatre Company. CTG’s mission also states a commitment to work with local companies. Perhaps it’s time for CTG to make good, or better, on that commitment, to absorb the edgier aesthetic of our own braver companies. Without it, I fear that five years from now, we’re all going to be sitting in the Taper as though in a nut-house garden, gazing up at blue leaves.
THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES | By JOHN GUARE, presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | (213) 628-2772 | Through October 19