Photo by Anne Fishbein
Next to the fuchsia marabou and other colorful plumage at Buzz, a West Hollywood hipster coffee bar, Gene Franklin Smith stands out. His pallor and sensible sweater ensemble immediately mark him as the kind of person who’s read Bleak House more than once.
Charles Dickens’ labyrinthine novel has been turned into a supersleek adaptation by Smith, and coolly realized onstage by Larry McCallister for Write Act Repertory Company. Ordering plain coffee rather than any of the chichi specialty drinks on the menu, Smith chats about the success of his play and the particular challenges of bringing Dickens to life as a stage work in movieland.
“I loved Dynasty. It was my favorite show, and I never missed it,” he gushes about Aaron Spelling’s ’80s TV megahit. “Bleak House is one big juicy melodrama, just like Dynasty. In the book, 13 people die — but we’ve got it down to eight.”
Smith’s true feat is in culling Dickens’ elaborately plotted 900-plus-page novel into a stage event lasting just over two and a half hours. (By contrast, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby clocked in at over eight and a half.) Smith’s adaptation proves that engaging theater doesn’t have to be an endurance sport — his streamlined adaptation contains all the color, flavor and vigor of the novel. Dickens’ much-beloved grotesques still appear — dissolute poet Harold Skimpole (Steve Keyes), crackpot charity organizer Mrs. Jellyby (Caroline Kera), aggressive, small-fish social climber Mrs. Guppy (Maggie Peach), and the aptly named criminal Krook (Cameron Mitchell Jr.), who dies of spontaneous combustion.
Smith shifts much of Dickens’ ironic narration over to the character Esther Summerson (Wendy Gough), one of a trio of orphans involved in a tangled legal case whose length financially drains the estate in question. Smith has more narrowly focused the narrative on Esther’s search for identity and has cut characters who don’t come into contact with her.
The show is now in its second extension, and ticket sales have been brisk, claims Smith, due in part to the “Dickens freaks.”
“They’re like Trekkies,” Smith explains. “And now they’ve listed us on their Dickens Web sites.”
Founder and artistic director of Write Act Repertory Company, a relatively new troupe renting space from St. Stephen’s Church in Hollywood, Smith is well aware that ticket sales everywhere have dropped off, and filling seats (politely known as “audience development” in theater circles) is a Herculean task in our Dickensian times. Recently, Write Act board of advisers member Debbie Reynolds came to see Bleak House, and she mistakenly went to the wrong theater, Actors Co-op, at a different church across the street. The Co-op’s box-office staff reluctantly directed the perky blond star across Gower to the correct theater.
“[Reynolds has] done it twice,” Smith sighs, “but Actors Co-op wanted to keep her when she showed up there the second time.”
The production is also linked to the Hollywood machine through Smith’s day job — he toils in the legal department of a major Hollywood studio. Drafting employment contracts day after day — scribbling like the Dickens or one of his fictional stand-ins — not only pays Smith’s bills, it allows him to work on plays like Bleak House.
Bleak House plays at Write Act Theater at St. Stephen’s Church, 6128 Yucca St., Hollywood, through February 3. Call (323) 860-8894.