Photos by L.M. Pagano (top)
and Joan Marcus

I had a cousin visiting from Sheffield, England, last weekend, so I thought I’d give her a treat, a novelty for a Brit — take her to the theater in Los Angeles. For those who don’t appreciate the staggering theatrical output here, there were 31 new productions opening across the city that weekend alone. From Friday, 8 p.m. through midnight, Saturday, I carved out a schedule of five plays in 28 hours. Bear in mind: This was not some annual theater fest, like the Edinburgh Fringe or our NoHo Arts Festival. It was just another day in paradise.

The city sampler was of a far higher standard than that described by contrarians who insist that, for all the product, there’s nothing going on here in L.A. The standard was also more modest in both its aspirations and accomplishments than the end-of-the-rainbow scenarios put out by civic boosters, who blindly defend local theater against the perpetual and perpetuating insults of Minneapolites, Chicagoans, Seattleites and Nu Yorkuhs.

The journey through 28 hours of L.A. theater followed a fairly straight road thematically — from the perky innocence and optimism of 42nd Street to the satirical depravity of Richard Redlin’s Trust Me, with its steamy sex scene between a quadriplegic ex-con and his porn-star half-sister, both of whom are angling to murder the other. The afterglow of these five plays reinforced the myth that film and TV really do infiltrate the aesthetics of our theater, whether or not the creators are striving for an Industry deal, or reacting against the Biz, or simply reflecting, however unwittingly, their years spent working for The Man.

For fear of being charged with guest abuse, I didn’t ask my cousin to sit through a four-plays-in-one-day Saturday marathon. But I can pretty much guess what her reactions would have been to productions I saw while she was lounging poolside in the blazing sun (something she doesn’t do much in Sheffield). So the following is her assessment of plays she may or may not have actually attended, as interpreted by me:

Friday, 8 p.m.: Ahmanson Theater, 42nd Street. Adapted from the 1933 film, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s 1980 musical, with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, opened on Broadway the same day its legendary director-

choreographer, Gower Champion, died, infusing the production with a cachet of sentimentality that further propelled its commercial success. Locally, we’re getting a solid bus-and-truck tour of the 2001 Broadway revival. It’s the star-is-born story of an ingénue hoofer with a spine of steel and a heart of gold (Catherine Wreford) who eventually replaces a reigning diva (Blair Ross) in a Broadway tap-dance spectacle produced by Fosse-like Julian Marsh (Patrick Ryan Sullivan). The whole thing is an homage to glitter and the Great White Way, to the rewards of perseverance and hard work, to the thrill of good fortune (even in the Depression) and to the cult of celebrity — here unflinchingly celebrated. The 34-member cast makes a great dance ensemble, with the same June Taylor Dancers mirror effect played here in earnest which The Producers ridicules in “Springtime for Hitler” (when Nazi storm troopers pour into a swastika reflected in the sky). Bramble’s direction is so slick it falls over itself. And where Annie Lennox once crooned “Keep Young and Beautiful” with a perky twist of mockery, here Patti Mariano, Frank Root and their backups sing it with everything but that twist.

Saturday, 2 p.m.: Theatre/Theater, Oedipus Rex. We’re still in the ’30s, in the Depression, and a depression, trapped in a tiny Hollywood theater on a balmy afternoon. The air conditioner upstage right grinds away and diffuses the best efforts of director Jeffrey Wienckowski to retell Sophocles’ tragic detective story with splashes of vaudeville. The producin company is named Sons of Beckett, and its attempt here is to marble the ancient Greek saga with the Irish master’s love of Buster Keaton’s shtick and burlesque humor. It’s not a bad idea. Steven Berkoff pulled it off years ago in Greek, upending the classic. But here it plays as a weirdly reverent miscalculation. This is partly because, technically, the shtick thuds, the set appears held together by duct tape, and partly because the “updating” — ostensibly to make it more accessible to youth — is actually a quaint apology for having to tell such a grim story. (If that’s really how they feel, perhaps they should have chosen a different story.) By Act 2, Sophocles’ mystery kicks in, despite the company’s robust attempts at trivialization, but it’s too late to salvage the event. Sitting upstage at a masked spinet and watching the action with an animated expression of greater interest than the event actually warrants, Heidi Kushnatisian fakes piano accompaniment to ditties that punctuate the action.

Saturday, 5 p.m.: Knightsbridge Theater, Oh! What a Lovely War. Excellent work. Can’t tell exactly what era we’re in here, but it doesn’t seem to be the present, since the stage is rimmed with early-last-century footlights (as is the stage in Oedipus Rex). Marshall Bissett directs Joan Littlewood’s anti-war musical satire (that she developed with London’s Theatre Workshop in 1963) by the numbers; given how rarely it’s produced, that makes sense. (Despite critical acclaim and commercial success off–West End, the original production never made it to America.) “By the numbers” means that the ensemble of 15 is costumed (by Vicki Conrad, Candace Weber and Sylvia Stachura) as French Pierrots (clowns) over which they wear small costume pieces in their portrayals of multiple characters. The musical chronicles the initial patriotism and subsequent despondency over Britain’s involvement in World War I. Without any attempt at contemporary parallels, those parallels are evident, particularly the quasi-religious fervor of Sir Douglas Haig (Joe Thomas) rationalizing his policy of attrition, sending wave after wave of British troops into the trenches. One scene of British and German GIs lobbing Christmas presents to each other on the front lines is a simply devastating glimpse into any war’s underlying lunacy. The action remains relentlessly jocular, with the eerie juxtaposition of projected images broadcast on a suspended screen: faces from the era, and the rising death-toll statistics as the actor-soldiers sing on. This is a production that doesn’t miss a beat, and though some of the female voices falter, it matters little. When, to the melody of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a chorus of GIs croons, “Forward Joe Soap’s army/Marching out of fear/With our old commander/Safely in the rear,” no grave goes unturned.

Saturday, 8 p.m.: Elephant Lab Theater, Ten Tricks. Things start to heat up onstage as the air outside cools: Writer-director Rick Pagano’s La Ronde of sketch-length liaisons between various prostitutes and clients shows glimpses of Genet-like insights into the relationships among eroticism, intimacy, power and commerce. Set in a brothel run by a woman (Wendy Phillips in a role now taken over by Susan Blakely) who’s dying, the play speculates on a faulty gambit that her mortality will infuse the sketches with a vision. Pagano has been one of the city’s foremost casting directors, and his production, with its opulent sheen, has the unmistakable feel of a showcase, featuring some excellent performances. Albie Selznick contributes impressive magic tricks, playing into both the “trick” double entendre and the sleight of hand at the core of any commercial transaction, and many interpersonal ones. But the biggest trick of all — which Pagano
doesn’t pull off in his clever, sexy and entertaining etude — is making truisms look profound.

Saturday, 11 p.m.: Elephant Lab Theater, Trust Me. Everybody’s trying to kill everyone else for the money in Rick Redlin’s comedy of debauchery. Ex–porn star, current coke addict Trixie (Debra De Liso) has been left an inheritance, so she may or may not need her young jock, asshole husband (Sean Wing), whose libido was shot off during his last bank heist. Enter Trixie’s older jock, quadriplegic half-brother (Redlin), who needs Viagra to get things moving, which he does, with Trixie. The play’s mystery is trying to figure out who’s loyal to whom, and its satire resides with exactly the same question. It’s a Mamet-Pinter amalgam produced by a film company, where its greater aspirations obviously lie. And its underlying depravity is a long, long way from 42nd Street.

42nd STREET | Book by MICHAEL STEWART and MARK BRAMBLE, music by HARRY WARREN, lyrics by AL DUBIN | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through August 31 | (213) 628-2772

OEDIPUS THE KING | By SOPHOCLES | Presented by the SONS OF BECKETT THEATER COMPANY at THEATRE/THEATER, 4525 Hollywood Blvd. | Through August 16 | (818) 785-9558

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR | By JOAN LITTLEWOOD and THE THEATRE WORKSHOP | Presented by KNIGHTSBRIDGE THEATER, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake | Through August 24 | (626) 440-0821

TEN TRICKS | Written and directed by RICK PAGANO | At the ELEPHANT LAB THEATER, 1708 Lillian Way, Hollywood | Through August 9 | (818) 655-6195

TRUST ME | Written and directed by RICHARD REDLIN | At the ELEPHANT LAB THEATER, 1708 Lillian Way, Hollywood | Through August 2 | (310) 952-5011

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