Grounded at CTG but making a 'Great Leap' in Pasadena

2019_Great_Leap_0079-1.jpgChristine Lin and Justin Chien in the Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players' production of "The Great Leap." Photo by Jenny Graham.

Sometimes, you can get two different impressions of an LA Times article, depending on whether you're looking at the newsprint version or at

This was the printed headline over a particularly incisive commentary by Times theater critic Charles McNulty last month: "Our local theater lacks direction, leadership."

This was the headline at the top of the online version of the same article: "As Center Theatre Group sputters, L.A. struggles to realize its artistic potential."

In other words, unlike the headline on paper, the digital headline drew attention to McNulty's argument that the primary problem is with Center Theatre Group, not with the much broader swath of "our local theater." To be fair, the print edition also had a secondary headline, over the continuation of the article inside Calendar: "L.A. theater needs CTG as leader." But even those words lack the impact of the idea that CTG is "sputtering".

Anyone who cares about LA theater should already have read McNulty's essay. But perhaps you missed a couple of subsequent developments, so I'll draw your attention to them.

First, in a letter to the Times, playwright David Henry Hwang responded to McNulty with a spirited defense of CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie's commitment to "Soft Power," the Hwang/Jeanine Tesori script and score that CTG birthed at the Ahmanson Theatre in May 2018. McNulty had mentioned "Soft Power," mostly favorably, in the next-to-last paragraph of his commentary, but Hwang's letter cited Ritchie's decision to continue "Soft Power" and bolster its resources with a move from the Mark Taper Forum to the larger Ahmanson Theatre as "arguably the bravest act of producing we have experienced in our careers." He also noted that Ritchie made this decision even after one of the major plot components of "Soft Power" had been changed by the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Second, in a little-noticed development unrelated to McNulty's commentary, CTG finally made the smart decision to include a play set in contemporary LA, Jonathan Caren's "Canyon," among the selections in CTG's Block Party next spring at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. I had mentioned the possibility of IAMA Theatre's staging of "Canyon," among other then-current LA-set productions, as a Block Party candidate in a March column, in which I pointed out that contemporary LA settings were completely missing from the three-year history of the Block Party. So I'm happy to see this play's one small corner of LA receiving an invitation.

soft-power-cast.jpgThe cast of "Soft Power." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

That said, let's also note that only two productions are scheduled for the 2020 Block Party (the other is Sacred Fools Theater's "The Art Couple"). In each of the Party's previous years, three local productions were transferred to the Douglas. The Block Party announcement last month didn't acknowledge that this is a cutback, let alone offer an explanation.

Perhaps we should simply assume that the same financial and marketing pressures on CTG that McNulty discussed in his commentary are to blame. They're probably also responsible for the fact that CTG's largest venue, the Ahmanson, has been occupied since the beginning of September with two successive solo standup comedy acts, John Leguizamo's "Latin History for Morons" and Michael Birbiglia's "The New One". Each of these discuss fatherhood (albeit from very different perspectives), and each of them is either available or about to be available in Netflix specials. Of course, the 2103-seat Ahmanson was built for larger-scale shows. But at least wider-angle productions will start returning next month, with yet another version of Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake."

Thematically, the widest-angled show in LA theater right now is "The Great Leap," at Pasadena Playhouse, in a joint production between the playhouse and East West Players. It would make an ideal play to see in rep with "Soft Power," if that were possible, because the theme of both productions is the culture clash between the two biggest sovereign powers on the globe - the United States and China.

If the two shows are ever produced together, the sensible chronological order would be to see Lauren Yee's "The Great Leap" before "Soft Power." Yee's play is set in 1989, with a flashback to 1971, while "Soft Power" is set around the 2016 election.

Yee's narrative takes us into the arena of international basketball. In the 1971 flashback, we see a brash young American brought to China in order to form a basketball team. In the 1989 scenes, the now middle-aged coach is returning to China for a match between the San Francisco college team he currently coaches and the Chinese team that has grown from the roots he planted in 1971. That team is now coached by the man who served as the American's interpreter back in 1971.

Back home in California, a young American, whose Chinese immigrant mother has just died, wheedles his way into the China-bound American team - and surprising developments ensue. I would be violating all the usual spoiler rules if I were to be any more specific about what happens.

Let's just say that even if some plot turns strike you as a bit far-fetched, think of it as a somewhat tall tale with enormous metaphorical impact. While "The Great Leap" isn't quite as accomplished as Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band," which won national and local awards for Yee in its premiere at South Coast Repertory, it comes close.

The economy of BD Wong's staging of Yee's play is remarkable. Only four actors are on the stage, and they're playing only one character apiece, but they get the job done. This is in part due to transfixing projection designs by Hana Sooyeon Kim. This production is so successful that it offers a ray of hope that Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players could eventually collaborate on that previously mentioned idea -- a concurrent double bill of "The Great Leap" and "Soft Power."

And now a few words about the concurrent double bill at Geffen Playhouse. Occupying the Geffen's smaller stage is Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play," a satire about a white director and actors who are striving to create a "woke" Thanksgiving play for schools. Among the jokes is the revelation that the one actor in this fictional group who was presumed to be authentically Native turns out not to be Native after all.

At least part of FastHorse's intent is to poke fun at the same theater companies that might be producing "The Thanksgiving Play." They want to do a play by a Native writer, she has said, but they prefer "castable" plays, and the casting is easier if all the roles are "white-presenting." Unfortunately, at least in this production, the broad satire can't sustain a full evening; it would be work better as a short sketch.

If you go next door to the Geffen's larger stage, you find a new adaptation of "Key Largo." This Florida-set noirish tale is best known as a 1948 movie with Bogart, Bacall and Edward G. Robinson, which was adapted from an obscure Maxwell Anderson play from 1939. The Geffen adaptation, which retains the movie's post-war time frame, seems to exist primarily to draw the movie star Andy Garcia (who has Cuban-Floridian roots) to the Geffen as co-adapter (with Jeffrey Hatcher) and as the actor in the Robinson role as the gangster boss. Doug Hughes' staging is moderately entertaining and boasts John Lee Beatty's impressively intricate set. But l prefer the close-ups yet also the outdoor vistas of the movie -- most of which was actually shot in Burbank.

The odd thing about the juxtaposition of "Key Largo" with "Thanksgiving Play" is that if you've seen the 1948 movie, you'll remember that some strictly secondary but sympathetic Seminole characters appear on the screen. Yet the Seminoles can't be found on stage at the Geffen, although you occasionally hear them mentioned.

So this adaptation of "Key Largo" subtly reinforces the message sent from "The Thanksgiving Play" next door - that roles for Native actors have a habit of disappearing. I imagine that some of the Native actors who work in LA are not amused.

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