Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in "The Country House." Photo: Michael Lamont.
Geffen Playhouse is producing two premieres simultaneously. One of them, Donald Margulies' "The Country House," is wonderful. The other, Steven Drukman's "Death of the Author," isn't.
Although the plays are brand-new, their depicted situations aren't exactly fresh. The characters in them don't stray from the two professions that are so familiar to the Geffen's core audience - academia (the Geffen building is owned by UCLA, which is just across the street) and entertainment (the Geffen was created by the late Hollywood producer/director/schmoozer Gil Cates.)
Neither play employs cutting-edge techniques. Although the characters in "Death of an Author" discuss advanced literary notions, those ideas aren't successfully reflected in the play itself. As for "The Country House," Margulies apparently decided it was his turn to write a contemporary American play inspired by Chekhov.
But don't yawn just yet — even if you saw "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's overhyped and similarly Chekhovian-inspired effort at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year. Durang wrote a largely uninspired satire; Margulies is much more affectionate toward his equally flawed characters. He avoids the excessive lampooning that drained the life out of Durang's opus.
At the Geffen, the titular house is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts - home of the real-life Williamstown Theatre Festival. The great Anna Patterson (the great Blythe Danner) has called for a family reunion at the family's summer home, where she is preparing for a run in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." It marks her return to acting a year after the cancer-caused death of her 41-year-old daughter, an equally luminous actress, in this very house.
The blood relatives who show up are Anna's bedraggled and never-married son Elliot (Eric Lange) and her recently Yale-graduated granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), whose mourning for her mother is perhaps a tad more intense than that of Susie's father, the Hollywood director Walter (David Rasche.)'
Walter, who's nearly as old as Anna, has decided to introduce his new, younger girlfriend Nell (Emily Swallow), also an actress, to the clan. Also joining the group is Michael (Scott Foley), a 40ish friend who once played Marchbanks to Anna's Candida at Williamstown. Although Michael is now a wealthy Hollywood-based TV star and an advocate for building schools in the Congo, he's doing his summertime stage-acting stint in "The Guardsman" at Williamstown.
Emily Swallow and Scott Foley. Photo: Michael Lamont.
Except for Walter and Nell, the relationships here stir up almost entirely unrequited feelings. Margulies and director Daniel Sullivan confidently orchestrate and navigate the turmoil. The pre-intermission finale is a stunningly funny surprise, and the play ends on a note of lyrical poignance that is, yes, convincingly Chekhovian.
To encapsulate the difference between this play and Durang's, note that the younger trophy fiancé (Spike) in "Vanya..." was a buffoon; the younger trophy fiancée in "Country House" (Nell), is treated much more respectfully. True, Nell does refer scornfully to "LA and all the crap that goes with it" — my advice to Nell, if she wants a non-crappy experience in LA, is to go see "The Country House" at the Geffen. But Hollywood big-shot Walter is also allowed to defend selling out to Hollywood so articulately that you almost might think that Margulies believes him.
By the way, considering that Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie ran the Williamstown festival before he arrived in LA (and he grew up not far from it), I began wondering whether he ever entertained the notion of trying to snag Margulies' play for the Taper. He certainly could have brought an insider's perspective to it. Perhaps, however, he thought a play set in Williamstown might look too insular, as if he wanted to show us a slice of his own past. Also, the Tony that Durang won for "Vanya..." may have helped convince Ritchie to do it at the Taper, after which he wouldn't have wanted to do yet another consciously-Chekhov-inspired production so soon — regardless of its quality. In this case, however, the Geffen got the better end of the deal.
Not so with "Death of the Author," next door to "The Country House" in the Geffen's smaller space, staged by Bart DeLorenzo. The only reason to seek it out is to admire Orson Bean's irresistible performance as a swashbuckling English department chair on the verge of retirement.
Drukman's play is a mess. You may have heard that it's about a case of plagiarism, pitting a professor against a student who's about to graduate from a prestigious college. The student tries to deflect this charge by arguing that the unattributed quotes that make up his paper reflect the nature of the genre about which he was writing. Without any presence on the stage of the plagiarized authors themselves, and without any literal visualization of the student's paper for the audience to see, the issue of plagiarism gradually recedes, and it's easy to dismiss it as a serious concern.
Next, the play appears to be about the malleable nature of readers' prejudices and perceptions - or perhaps it's about the class distinctions between the professor, who's from a blue-collar family, and the blue-blooded student.
Then again, the play's title is reflected in a very specific incident from the student's past - which we learn from his ex-girlfriend - or is she back together with him? The role of this only woman in the cast looks like a threadbare plot device instead of an actual character. Meanwhile, a more pivotal character - the dean who makes the final ruling on the case - isn't on the stage any more than the plagiarized authors. And why the oddly upbeat ending, almost as if we've been watching an earnestly uplifting sitcom?
If he plans to rewrite, Drukman needs to think more deeply about what his aim is and how best to accomplish it.
'STONEFACE' AND 'BLISS POINT'
Here's a shout-out to Pasadena Playhouse for picking up the Sacred Fools Theater production of Vanessa Claire Stewart's "Stoneface" from the 99-seat world and bringing it to one of LA's most prestigious stages.
And kudos to Sacred Fools, too, which seems to be remarkably adept at inducing such transfers, compared to the rest of its 99-seat siblings. On the same weekend that "Stoneface" opened in Pasadena, the Sacred Fools production of "Absolutely Filthy" - one of my favorite shows of 2013 - ran for a weekend at South Coast Repertory's smallest space (now let's see it advance to a longer run at a bigger theater.) Sacred Fools also originated "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," which moved to the Geffen in 2009. And Center Theatre Group will co-present the premiere of the CTG-commissioned "The Behavior of Broadus," from the Burglars of Hamm, in September at Sacred Fools. While this last tidbit isn't exactly another example of the same smaller-to-larger-theater phenomenon, might it eventually lead to a CTG production at a larger space?
Interactions between the smaller and larger spheres of LA theater should be much more common, and they also should involve the midsize theaters that provide an ideal compromise between the 99-seaters and the larger theaters such as Pasadena Playhouse.
Having said all that, "Stoneface" isn't quite as exciting in Pasadena as it was at Sacred Fools. Some of that is attributable simply to the fact that I had already seen the visual effects. I wasn't anticipating them when I saw them at Sacred Fools, and in Pasadena I was waiting for them. But Pasadena's problem isn't only that Sacred Fools had the honor of unveiling them for the first time but also that we routinely expect larger effects in a larger theater - and they don't seem all that larger.
I was, however, surprised by one thing at Pasadena - that there weren't more changes in the structure of the script. The play has a scrambled chronology that seems unnecessarily arbitrary. Perhaps because I wasn't quite as bedazzled by the effects and by French Stewart's still-remarkable performance as Buster Keaton as I had been when I first saw them, I became impatient with the frequent time shifts.
Of course, most of these objections probably aren't relevant to those who didn't see the original production. And I'm glad that the talent is finally being remunerated (or so I assume) on a level that's usually impossible in the 99-seat world.
"Stoneface" makes it clear that Keaton's alcoholism wasn't good for his art, but it's more about his art than it is about his alcoholism, and it maintains a softly sunny disposition about his life.
Another play with structural problems, Shishir Kurup's "Bliss Point," concentrates more on addicts and addictions - and the portrait is much darker. Directed by Juliette Carrillo, "Bliss Point" is part of Cornerstone Theater's Hunger Cycle. But unlike most Cornerstone productions, it's mounted in a 99-seat theater, the Odyssey, instead of a more site-specific venue that is related to the subject and the community under discussion. As a result, it doesn't convey the usual feeling that Cornerstone is serving a community through art - even if the art is a little rough around the edges.
Actually, I have no problem with the performances and production elements of "Bliss Point." The play's structure is the obstacle. In a series of vignettes, we meet several apparently unrelated groups of characters from two eras and two cities who are struggling with addiction issues, finally discovering how they're related only at the end of the play.
The shifts between times and places in "Bliss Point" are much more jagged - and baffling - than those in "Stoneface." And they inhibit our engagement with the characters. The play becomes an intellectual puzzle more than the searing examination of addictions that might have resulted from a reshaping of the script.