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Selling Neil Simon to the Indians

A smattering of local theater veterans gathered in the courtyard of Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theater last Saturday night for a workshop presentation of Michael Schlitt’s one-man show, Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure. There stood Gary Guidinger, a lean, stick figure who’s been running the Zephyr Theater for decades; Kyle Gass of rock group Tenacious D, an ebullient bowling ball of a man once involved with the Actors’ Gang; Ghost Road co-directors Katherine Noon and Mark Seldis; and director Nancy Keystone, whose ensemble project Apollo opens at the Kirk Douglas Theater later this year. Keystone is married to Schlitt (a founding member of the Actors’ Gang), and she directed this workshop. There also stood Ray Simmons — a slender, head-shaved man who, for the past couple of years, has been producing L.A.’s annual Edge of the World Theater Festival.

When talking about theater projects in development, the conversations sounded hopeful, though Simmons revealed his sadness that this year’s upcoming EdgeFest — under one roof at downtown’s city-owned Los Angeles Theater Center — would probably be “LATC’s last hurrah.”

After years of mismanagement and neglect, and after years of formal bids and political infighting by theater troupes and developers to manage the once-thriving four-theater facility, LATC’s status, Simmons said, is once more “in limbo.”

LATC’s limbo is a metaphor for the state of L.A. theater in general — which is losing spaces head-over-heels to redevelopment and gentrification. Stage artists who have worked here for years, clearly not for the money, ask themselves why exactly they devoted their youth to creating theater in the nation’s film capital. There are some perfectly good answers, but that doesn’t deflect the sting of the question’s barb.

Schlitt’s performance tapped a multitude of such communal, existential anxieties. Reading from a script, and with a tone of wry bitterness, he told of his identity crisis at the age of 30 — after which it was no longer possible to be an enfant terrible — and then another at age 35, at which age, a friend told him, “You’re either on your way or you’re not.”

Years later, with his marriage to Keystone hanging in the balance, Schlitt tells us in his show, he inexplicably accepted an offer to direct Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song on a four-city tour across India. It was a perverse decision, given how he despises the play, and he could tell from the start that the producer was a cheapskate con artist. He, and the producer, invented a fictitious résumé for a fictitious Los Angeles–based repertory company, with fictitious rave reviews from fictitious newspapers, in order to sell Neil Simon to the Indians.

To help rationalize his fraud, Schlitt videotaped the tour for a documentary film, thereby hoping to make his debut as a filmmaker. But if he really wanted to be a filmmaker, why did he confine his activities to the theater? And if he really wanted to be a theater maker, why did he stay in L.A.? There are some perfectly good answers, but that doesn’t deflect the sting of the questions’ barbs.

When Schlitt raised any of these points in his show, a collective shudder could be felt in the audience.

His version of They’re Playing Our Song was, by Schlitt’s own admission, a piece of crap, yet it garnered such rave reviews in the Indian press that Schlitt started to believe he had created something magical. Then came the party for Bangalore’s intellectual elite, at which a beautiful young engineer (and other guests) gently told him that his production was indeed a piece of crap.

Schlitt tells us what he might have said had he been gracious or even slightly enlightened. He tells us what he might have said had he expressed the fury he actually felt. Instead, he stood there, smirking, and said nothing — his lack of commitment to a point of view being another sinkhole on the road to doing something, anything, of significance. Now he has hours of videotape of an experience that serves as a painful reminder of his moral and artistic vacuity during that time. So rather than make a film, he’s doing this play instead — a play about a film about a play.

And here sits L.A.’s theater community, laughing at the comedy of Schlitt’s adventure and cringing at his vision of directing a play in a foreign land, because everyone in the room understands how our own back yard is also a kind of foreign land if you’re a theater maker looking for dignity.

This might explain why the post-show reception was slightly more tense than most. Guidinger sipped on wine and nibbled Indian pastries. Keystone spoke of her upcoming Apollo, while Simmons, possibly reflecting on his upcoming Edge of the World Theater Festival and the plight of LATC, left early, quietly slipping around the corner into the night.

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