Watching theater across L.A. is like spending the Fourth of July behind the Hollywood sign — you gaze out over the city and see sporadic bursts of light that have grown less frequent over the years. I once thought the problem with local theater was L.A.’s soaring real estate costs and the consequent pressure the market places on experimental storefront companies to be less edgy and more profitable. Or that it was the famously tawdry motive of doing theater to promote more lucrative careers in Hollywood. However, friends in New York say the same about theater there. A New York Times editor tells me that after a year of seeing three to four plays a week in the world’s center of professional theater, she’s moved by a mere three or four productions per season. Maybe all critics are jaded curmudgeons. But if so, why are theater audiences aging and attendance shrinking?

This isn’t true of opera. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that in the 10 years between 1982 and 1992, opera attendance shot up 35 percent, and then another 8.2 percent between 1992 and 2002, with most new audience members under age 40. (Similar figures have come in from Britain and Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.) Opera is clearly feeding a hunger, offering something that TV, movies and iPods can’t. Maybe it’s the scale, the size of the proscenium, the grandeur of the passion, the spectacle. That 20-year burst of new opera goers has not sustained its pace in the past four years, but opera continues to grow new audiences.

That’s also what downtown’s REDCAT aims for, with its multidisciplinary arts programming — from Slovenian dance to Polish puppets. Attendance at this theater, which is connected to Roy O. Disney Hall, is up 12 percent this year, with the bulk of its audiences 25 to 35 years old — a pleasing aberration of the statistical profile of most theaters. It’s also a hint of the future, of the operatic canvases and mythic stories that hold a key to our theater’s survival.

Such expansion — of both artistry and attendance — has eluded most American theater, whose support organizations presume that the problem starts with marketing and so concentrate on new technologies for reaching youth. Marketing is a legitimate concern, but maybe the problem starts with what’s on the stage, with the timidity of vision. How many more revivals of Glengarry Glen Ross and Closer and Nunsense do we have to sit through? How does a lackluster, out-of-tune reimagining of Dames at Sea really serve the audiences of Silver Lake in 2006?

How about, instead, gambling on that unknown writer in our own neighborhood whose unwieldy play or poem rattled bones when some literary manager first read it, but which the theater is just too afraid to produce, fearful that it’s “flawed” and that nobody will come? If producer Michael Ritchie can take such a risk at Center Theatre Group (as he did with Douglas Steinberg’s Nighthawks), where there’s real money being invested, why have our smaller theaters, with a fraction of the overhead, become so squeamish? Such fear is suffocating our theater, as it is in New York. There wasn’t a critic I met during recent visits there who believed that the dearth of quality on Manhattan stages was due to a lack of energy or talent. They speculated that the most interesting plays and playwrights simply aren’t getting produced.

I don’t presume to speak for everyone, but I know what I want — to feel something real, something authentic. Of course, it’s paradoxical to ask this from an art form that, by definition, is built on artifice. But I’m not complaining about razzle-dazzle, which I like a lot. I don’t care if it’s an autobiographical one-woman show, or a circus, a magic show, a play by August Wilson or a literary salon. I’m speaking of the attempt by artists to investigate an idea with honesty, intelligence, conviction and perhaps some humor. I need this in a culture that, like most cultures, is saturated in distortions and lies and arbitrary mandates and sales pitches. I need some relief, to be in a space with live actors where somebody is trying to speak the truth.

Among the disappointments in New York was Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed — an off-Broadway hit comedy that just transferred to Broadway after a rave review by The New York Times’ Ben Brantley. The play concerns the invasion by Hollywood into the life and principles of a New York playwright, who has written an openly gay love story, the integrity of which he wants to preserve. But a Hollywood agent, Diane (Julie White), secretly plans on “straightening” the plot. This is to keep her star client, Mitch (Tom Everett Scott) — who solicits a gay prostitute while in NYC — in the closet and, consequently, marketable.

The Little Dog Laughed contains one gloriously satirical scene — a Tribeca lunch meeting at which Diane and Mitch try to persuade the (offstage) playwright to sell them the film rights to his play. The playwright mistakenly believes that Diane wants Mitch to perform in the New York stage production. “You inconsequential stain,” says Diane’s inner voice. “I am not paying for your fucking crab cakes in this hellhole for my client, who is on the rise, to replace someone in a play.” Somehow, through pure contempt, White twists the word “play” into a synonym for “turd.”

Later, in a direct address to the audience, Diane quips that Los Angeles has solved the problem of cell phones in the theater. “We’ve simply stopped doing theater altogether.”

This line received the biggest laugh and most knowing applause of the show.

Beane’s play really isn’t bad, but that throwaway joke is emblematic of what’s wrong with it, a humor that derives more from presumption than from inquiry, or even curiosity. (L.A. had 166 professional plays on the boards that week, compared to New York’s 197.) His play’s Teflon humor receives laughs but, like his L.A.-theater joke, gets to the heart of nothing in particular, an emptiness that most drama critics have to sit through three to four nights a week in cities across America.

Back in L.A.’s trenches, Circle X Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at [Inside] the Ford is very encouraging, despite its physical resemblance to Yale Rep’s production earlier this year. Much, though not all, of Circle X’s Cineplex approach to live theater is forgiven, because John Langs’ production is so fine and Ruhl’s play, about the love triangle between Eurydice (Kelly Brady), her father (John Getz) and her groom, Orpheus (Tim Wright) — unfolding on Earth and in the Underworld — is such an arresting and fantastical look at growing up, growing old and saying goodbye.

Ruhl used her play to work something out, honestly, about fathers and daughters and husbands, about reality and myth. If you want a murder mystery, you can’t do better than Law and Order. If you want forensic empiricism, you can’t do better than CSI. But the theater can take us back into literature and music through an event that’s not prerecorded. Rather, it’s a live conjuring — personal and spiritual — a ballet, an opera and a magic act all rolled into one. If theater doesn’t aim for those heights, I don’t know what it’s for. Even when it fails to reach them, its aim will be truer than most of our current shows, whose producers are too nervous and harried even to try something ambitious. And if they can’t bother to try, why should we bother to show up?

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED | By DOUGLAS CARTER BEANE | CORT THEATRE, 138 W. 48th St., New York City | Scheduled indefinitely | (212) 239-6200

EURYDICE | By SARAH RUHL | Presented by CIRCLE X THEATRE COMPANY at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood| Through January 6 | (323) 461-3673

LA Weekly