Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in "Camp David."
On a recent trip to the other coast, I saw two plays -- within 24 hours -- about southern Democrats who were elected to the American presidency during my lifetime. No, not Bill Clinton.
Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" is primarily about Lyndon Johnson's successful shepherding of civil rights legislation in 1964, and Lawrence Wright's "Camp David" dramatizes Jimmy Carter's mediation of the talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat that resulted in an agreement between Israel and Egypt. In both of these situations, the presidents served as bridges between antagonistic parties -- the kind of presidential role that today seems much more difficult, despite the obvious need.
These two presidential plays were the products of ambitious commissioning programs at leading American theaters -- Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which presented the premiere of "All the Way" before it went to Broadway and which will open the "All the Way" sequel "The Great Society" in July, and Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, which developed and presented the premiere of "Camp David."
As an LA observer, I left these experiences with an LA-related question. Why isn't our most comparable theater company, Center Theatre Group, turning out comparably substantive and powerful dramatizations of American history that demonstrate how the past informs and affects present-day America?
The last time Center Theatre Group consistently helped forge dramatic works in this sphere was in the Gordon Davidson era of the early 1990s, when CTG played a critical role in the creation of "The Kentucky Cycle," "Angels in America" and "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992."
Schenkkan, who wrote "The Kentucky Cycle" as well as "All the Way," lived and worked in LA in the early '90s. So did the director of "All the Way," Bill Rauch, who was then a recent arrival as artistic director of Cornerstone Theater but since then was snatched out of our territory by that mighty contender to the north -- Ashland, Oregon, where Rauch runs Oregon Shakespeare. For that matter, Bryan Cranston -- the brilliant star of Broadway's "All the Way" (and, of course, "Breaking Bad") -- was an LA boy who attended Valley College and still lives primarily in LA.
I hope that I can safely assume that CTG is trying to obtain the rights to present "All the Way" in LA, preferably with Cranston working on his home turf -- although Cranston's understudy, Steve Vinovich, also has an LBJ-worthy face that's already familiar to LA theater audiences. "All the Way" could be a terrific cornerstone of the Taper's election-year season next year (but perhaps the Geffen Playhouse, which produced a lesser Schenkkan play and also hosted Cranston's last LA stage gig, might also have a chance?) CTG probably also should be trying to snag a production of "Camp David," preferably with its DC star Richard Thomas -- yes, the former John-Boy on TV's "The Waltons" is a very convincing Carter.
But wouldn't it have been great if CTG were developing plays like these and introducing them to the world?
To its credit, CTG last year produced the award-winning premiere of LA playwright Jennifer Haley's "The Nether," which raised topical cultural issues that resonated beyond its particular story. But its scale was small, compared to those of "Kentucky Cycle" and "Angels in America," and it was at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, not at CTG's larger flagship, the Mark Taper Forum. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Rajiv Joseph's imaginative take on the Iraq war, also opened first at the Douglas but then received the rare honor of re-opening at the Taper in 2010 -- the most adventurous sign of support for this kind of material that I've witnessed during the Michael Ritchie era at CTG.
But most of CTG's recent nods in the direction of historical or political relevance have been plays that previously opened elsewhere ("American Night", for example.) What did the Taper offer politicos during the 2012 election season? David Mamet's stale White House farce, "November," from the previous election-year cycle four years earlier.
Right now, at the Douglas, CTG is producing the premiere of Kimber Lee's "different words for the same thing". It's an engrossing play about its particular situation, but the lower-case and hard-to-remember title indicates the limited scale of its ambitions. Structured almost entirely in brief cinematic-style scenes, separated by a lot of furniture-moving by the actors, it's about people in a small town in Idaho.
When I first heard where it's set, I felt a twinge of jealousy -- thanks to the Samuel D. Hunter plays that have recently been seen at South Coast Repertory ("The Whale," "Rest") and Rogue Machine ("A Bright New Boise") and now Lee's "different words," contemporary Idaho seems to be getting more attention on the stages of greater LA than, well, greater LA.
That's a subject somewhat distinct from my earlier consideration of the overall ambition of the plays and their themes, but it's an important subject -- and it's an issue that I've regularly monitored over the last few years. Frankly, if I had to choose between more smaller-scale plays set in LA and a few larger-scale plays with clear-cut national or international resonance, I'd go with the former.
In an ideal world, however, CTG would be able to combine the two. It would introduce at least a few big plays with big themes that are set in the big city where CTG is located.
Perhaps that seems like an easier task for Arena Stage, as its home town is also the national capital -- "Camp David" deftly combines specifically local references with international themes. But LA is not exactly a shrinking bird-of-paradise on the world stage.
It's astonishing that CTG, which continues to bill itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company," can't find more interesting stories in the immensely diverse communities that surround the Music Center in all directions. In recent years, CTG has commissioned some potentially big plays with LA themes, but they haven't emerged from their developmental chambers. Still, every year I hope against hope that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" will avoid that generic-resident-theater feeling by finally paying greater attention to LA, with more involvement of LA talent as well as more LA settings.
The upcoming Douglas and Taper seasons are expected to be announced in the next few months. Does CTG have the will --- and the money -- to go big? And even if it lacks the money, perhaps it might still do something about the LA present or LA history. Is anyone out there writing a play about the groundbreaking LA mayoral showdown between Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty?
LA deserves an honored place at the CTG table -- and on a scale that might also mean something to the rest of America.
GHOSTS ON STAGE: In "different words for the same thing" at the Douglas, a young woman who died a few years ago appears as a realistic-looking apparition who communicates with some of the living. Of course ghosts have a long tradition in the theater -- think "Hamlet" and Macbeth" -- but those old-timey creations were more authentically scary. Now (and perhaps since the days of ""Blithe Spirit" and "Our Town") most of the dead who hang around in plays aren't scary. Instead, their usual role leans toward the therapeutic -- for themselves as well as for the survivors.
In the case of "different words," the ghost finally learns, as part of the climax, exactly how she died. Unfortunately, this is the weakest moment of an otherwise fine-grained play, because the explanation introduces a complicated subplot -- briefly sketched only in words, not in action -- that doesn't seem to have much relevance to anything else that's going on in "different words".
I saw two other plays over the weekend in which the dead remain literally alive for the audience, as representations of the survivors' thoughts. In Bekah Brunstetter's "Be a Good Little Widow" at NoHo Arts Center, a young husband's death in an airplane crash doesn't prevent him from returning to the stage. In Carey Crim's "Wake" at South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre, a somewhat older husband returns from beyond the grave to visitations with his wife, an agoraphobic who runs a mortuary within her own home.
The prevalence of this device on our stages devalues its effectiveness. It has become a cliche that playwrights apparently find difficult to resist.
But the ghost in "Wake" feels less cliched than the ghost in "Be a Good Little Widow," because the themes of "Wake" are bigger than those of "Widow." The title, "Wake", has more than one meaning, unlike the too-explicit title of "Widow." "Wake" depicts three generations of women, not the two represented in "Widow." The husband's death in "Wake" occurred three years before the play begins, so the play has a longer-term perspective on the aftermath of death, while much of the shorter "Widow" is about the first awful moments after a fatal accident.
Although Crim's tone is realistic, not satirical, her "Wake" contains a couple of wild plot twists that sound as if they might have been conceived by the younger Christopher Durang or the younger David Lindsay-Abaire. These developments aren't completely credible within the play's realistic surfaces, but they at least add welcome dashes of originality
Both of these plays are scheduled to close this weekend. If you'd like to see one -- but only one -- of LA theater's stories about the process of surviving a loved one's death, I recommend the livelier "Wake," which is produced by SeaGlass Theatre and directed by Matt Kirkwood. By the way, based on one particular line in the script, we can even count "Wake" as an LA-set script -- for those of us who care.
Bottom: "Wake" photo by Melissa McCormack.