Continental Divisiveness: New York and L.A. Theater

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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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.

 

“I’m working on A Catered Affair right now,” Miramontez explains, “which premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego. That production is trumpeting its San Diego Drama Critics Award. They’re using that. I think if that show premiered in L.A., there would be less enthusiasm to trumpet those awards and quotes. That’s my sense. That perception is based in fact.”

L.A. theater publicist-producer David Elzer, who’s been trying to find a New York home for his Milwaukee-born L.A. hit, The Marvelous Wonderettes, agrees in part with his New York colleague Miramontez. Though Elzer believes there has been a long-standing bias against productions from L.A., he’s observing a shift, a softening, as the world grows smaller and the cities grow increasingly interconnected and symbiotic.

“The best theater in the country will ultimately end up [in New York],” says Isherwood. “If you want attention to be paid, you have to make theater in New York. ... Let’s face it, I don’t think people who come out of grad school with theater in the blood think of L.A. as a place to establish themselves.”

Isherwood doesn’t believe that the New York theater community has any collective perception of L.A. at all, good or bad.

“New York is a New York–centrist place,” he explains. “They figure everything else is a tryout for New York.”

After growing up in Northern California, and graduating from Stanford University, Isherwood “somehow ended up in L.A. ... I don’t remember anymore. I think I was too lazy to move to New York, and the next thing you know, it was 10 years later.”

Isherwood worked for L.A. Style magazine, and then at the copy desk of Variety. While there, he started doing theater reviews for Back Stage West. He showed them to the editor at Variety, and that was the beginning of his career as a national theater critic. As Isherwood recalls this, his view that L.A. theater has scant relevance begins to soften.

“To be honest, L.A. is where I first fell in love with the theater,” he says. “It was in L.A. that I started going on a regular basis. In a weird way, because L.A. is not a great place — for lack of a better term — for high culture, because that’s not part of the general conversation, [that makes] the hunger for it greater in L.A., and you start to seek it out. I didn’t know a lot of people who went to a lot of theater in Los Angeles. That’s when I became really hooked on it.”

He says that while in L.A., he didn’t realize there was a qualitative difference between the work staged in L.A. and New York, and describes it as a consequence of “sheer quantity. ... There’s so much theater in New York, it generates its own excitement. The competition helps people live up to their best. There’s an intensity here [in New York] that you obviously don’t feel in L.A.”

Kendt, who continues to write freelance arts commentary from New York, says the problem of perception has more to do with New York provincialism than with any kind of agenda.

“My initial feeling is that L.A.’s just not on the radar at all out here, and I have to pick the times when I want to argue about that — that there really is theater in L.A. But for the most part, you have to nod along with the perception that it isn’t there. It doesn’t come from hostility, but from ignorance.”

He, like Isherwood, discovered a qualitative difference between the theater in L.A. and in New York, but Kendt’s view is slightly more paradoxical. He says theater buzz flies off the computer screen (from Web sites such as playbill.com and from the theater blogs connected to The New York Times and Time Out New York, plus independent blogs such as Kendt’s own thewickedstage.blogspot.com; Garrett Eisler’s playgoer.blogspot.com; Jason Grote’s jasongrote.blogspot.com; and Kyle T. Wilson’s frankswildlunch.blogspot.com — just for starters). Often, he says, it’s pointless gossip, but it reveals an international focus and a passion for the form that doesn’t exist on that scale in L.A. (though Wilson blogs from L.A.).

 

Then there’s the work itself. “There is a certain professionalism on the New York stage, and an etiquette of going to the theater that can seem a bit cold after you’ve been in the L.A. theater community,” says Kendt. “It’s more like: Sit down; this is going to start. You can set your clock by curtain time. You get a sense these actors were cast from a large pool; that doesn’t necessarily make for the most enriching theater performance.”

Kendt says he misses the companies and the ensemble-based work that are more prevalent in L.A., citing Theatre of Note, Pacific Resident Theatre and A Noise Within. “That doesn’t mean that people were cast in the right roles, but there’s more of a sense that these people work together and that they’re doing it because they want to, need to. In New York, there’s a lot more of what I would call that Taper level of deadly professionalism. Sometimes it works. It serves the play. More often it’s — they got some good actors, set looks great, they did their four weeks of rehearsals, and they put it up. Not a whole lot of palpable love, but it’s not about love, it’s about commerce.”

There’s a strong argument that because L.A. is a magnet for some of the country’s best actors, it’s a good place to develop new plays and to create the kinds of repertory system and ensemble theater that are cost-prohibitive in New York. Take the case of Kieren Brown, a Rutgers grad who tried New York for a couple of years, looking for some kind of ensemble-created theater. She is more interested in the process of theater than in its product. Who’d have guessed she’d find just what she was looking for in L.A.? She answered an ad in Back Stage West and has been working for more than a year on a highly disciplined ensemble piece about Mikhail Bulgakov with ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory).

New York–based playwright Bruce J. Robinson says he has received more support for the development of his plays in L.A. than in New York. Six of them have gotten readings or workshops, and one has even been produced, at theaters here ranging from the Norris in Palos Verdes and Theatricum Botanicum, outside Malibu to Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40, though the art form “remains more marginal in Los Angeles,” he says. Robinson has written some television, and hopes to do more in order to help subsidize his stage work, since the kind of New York theater best suited to his work, off-Broadway, is all but extinct.

“It’s impossible to open a show off-Broadway and expect to recoup,” says Robinson. “I know producers are recasting shows, looking for stars and going to Broadway, because there’s a business protocol. [Producers] are not happy with high-quality, small events. Altar Boyz took three years to recoup its costs off-Broadway. My kind of theater barely exists. Very few producers are participating.”

As for the fringier off-off-Broadway, Robinson notes, “It’s vital if you’re not interested in making a living.”

Theater is an art form of waning significance, Michael Feingold has bemoaned, describing himself and his generation as those “who have outlived the death of Broadway.” The kind of theater that matters to Feingold, a theater of artistic subtlety, stylistic elegance, intellectual rigor and spiritual ascendancy, cannot compete with the prevailing mores of a culture that cares more about property values than artistic ones. Rising real estate costs have delivered a lethal blow to off-off-Broadway, and are now doing the same to off-Broadway. It’s all a bit like taking the ax to the cherry trees in Chekhov’s play so that homes on the subdivided lots of the former orchard can be leased out to tourists. Feingold is like Madame Ranevskaya, who just can’t bear the thought of it anymore. The decimation is particularly vexing to people who were around to see the likes of innovative companies such as La Mama, adventurous playwrights such as Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Richard Foreman, and ensembles like the Living Theater and the Wooster Group launch history-making endeavors in the smaller, now struggling or shuttered venues that existed in the shadows of Broadway’s bright lights.

Isherwood does not concur that the theater is dying in New York, or anywhere else. “It’s been in the same perilous state for 20 years,” he explains. “You’d be surprised, artists find a way.”

One theory of American theater’s future is that off-Broadway is simply moving to lower-rent districts, in Brooklyn for example, and Austin, Chicago, Seattle and, God forbid, Los Angeles. Two questions linger: whether or not the best work these cities have to offer is actually being brought to New York by regional producers speculating on the bottom line, and whether this work can be viewed without prejudice when it rolls into Manhattan, seeking the validation on which so many reputations rely.

 

 

Click here to read Passing Strange: The L.A. Problem.

Click here to read An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East.


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