CTG grapples with branding, the British and a baby

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Reyna de Courcy, left, and Mary Beth Fisher in "Luna Gale." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

More than once, I've asked publicly how Center Theatre Group can possibly justify branding itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - an ID that appears, for example, eight times in the program for "What the Butler Saw," now at CTG's Mark Taper Forum.

Since Michael Ritchie took the CTG helm, the company has displayed hardly any interest in LA-specific settings, subjects or talent. In the nearly-pervasive absence of such indicators, doesn't the use of that phrase suggest that CTG is LA's only theater company - which, of course, would be an extremely arrogant and inaccurate suggestion?

So I was fascinated when Diane Rodriguez, one of CTG's three associate artistic directors, raised the subject in an interview on American Theatre magazine's Offscript podcast.
Rodriguez was responding to a question from one of the interviewers, American Theatre senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, about the general relationship between CTG and the rest of the LA theater community. But it was Rodriguez herself who brought up the troublesome label: "We were branded a few years ago - my theater might hate me for saying this, but - we were branded as being 'LA's Theatre Company'...It is a big responsibility, and we weren't doing it very well, quite frankly, and...the staff struggled with it."

She then cited two recent examples of CTG's support of other LA companies: a commission to the Burglars of Hamm to help produce "The Behavior of Broadus" at the sub-100-seat Sacred Fools Theater this year, and the inclusion of some LA artists in the 2013 Radar L.A. festival that CTG helps produce.

Yet regarding the wonderful "Behavior of Broadus," here is the elephant-in-the-room question - why wasn't it performed at one of CTG's own, larger spaces, where (I assume) it would have received even more money and much better marketing? The Hammsters have had previous success on the 99-seat level, but they have never broken through to the professional Equity-contract level in LA. So the best thing that CTG could have done for them would have been to schedule "Broadus" as part of one of the CTG seasons, in either CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre or the Taper -- or, failing that, to have made sure that it was part of the last Radar L.A.

For what it's worth, Rodriguez said that "we were able to help a company up the ante" in the case of "Broadus," and "we want to do that on a yearly basis."

By the way, Rodriguez also revealed that she's developing and hopes to direct a CTG-commissioned piece about the relationship between the black and Latino communities in Venice -- LA's Venice, not the Italian original. It would be a collaboration between Roger Guenveur Smith and Richard Montoya, drawing on the resources of a book that USC's Josh Kun and Laura Pulido co-edited (Rodriguez didn't name the book, but presumably it's "Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition.")

This sounds like a promising glimmer of CTG interest in a very LA-specific subject, but CTG commissions don't equal CTG productions. CTG commissioned the New York-based Civilians to prepare a production about LA's porn industry, and now CTG has just announced that the piece will receive its world premiere -- in New York, not at one of CTG's LA stages.

Then again, perhaps Rodriguez's position near the top of the CTG brass will increase the chances that the Smith/Montoya Venice project will reach a CTG stage. So might the fact that Montoya and Smith are the most prominent LA artists who have previously managed to snag LA-related CTG productions during the Ritchie years, despite Ritchie's chronic disinclination to program with LA-specific interests in mind.

SPEAKING OF CTG

Let's look at what CTG is currently offering LA theatergoers. The company's ongoing productions at the Music Center appear as if they might have been planned to be part of some hands-across-the-sea salute to mid-20th-century British theater.

I can't yet comment on the quality of the Angela Lansbury-driven revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" - it was scheduled to open Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, and I wrote this column before then. But the aforementioned revival of "What the Butler Saw" at the Taper demonstrates that it's very difficult to pull off a farce that relies so heavily on satirical attitudes and polemics that were fashionable in another country 45 years ago.

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"What the Butler Saw," photo by Craig Schwartz

"What the Butler Saw" acquired its reputation in no small part to the murder of its playwright, Joe Orton, before it was produced. But in the hands of John Tillinger's cast in 2014, it comes off as one of the most dated plays ever produced at the Taper. It's especially tone-deaf to the current American culture in its repeated references to the "rape" of one of the leading characters in a way that implies that "rape" is really just consensual sex that has become inconvenient to acknowledge.

Fortunately, CTG compensated for "What the Butler Saw" by scheduling a hard-hitting, contemporary drama, Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale," concurrently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. No, it isn't a CTG-bred production; it's from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Nor is it LA-specific. But as it examines an Iowa social worker who's grappling with a complicated child custody case, it's easy for an Angeleno to think of the recent controversies over California's and LA County's foster care systems. Not that it completely mirrors California's problems - this particular social worker is trying to prevent the unseen titular baby from entering foster care. But its depiction of an overwhelmed child protective system will probably ring bells throughout America.

And lest you think that this sounds awfully gray and grim for the holiday season, be assured that Gilman has woven together the strands of her story in a dramatically thrilling way that produces a few hearty character-based laughs along the way. In fact, I laughed more deeply and often with the very human characters of "Luna Gale" than I did at the artificial, barely-human quips from decades ago in "What the Butler Saw" or even the more contemporary but equally artificial laughs that CTG's last two holiday offerings at the Douglas -- Second City adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" -- tried to generate. Indeed, if CTG feels it must call on Chicago-based companies to come up with its holiday shows at the Douglas, I'm grateful that in 2014 it turned its attention to the Goodman instead of Second City.

Besides, isn't any play revolving around a baby especially appropriate for your Christmas consideration?

AND ELSEWHERE

That phantom British mid-century theater festival I mentioned earlier isn't restricted to the Music Center. In fact, perhaps its most interesting component is in Beverly Hills, at little Theatre 40, which is offering what is described as the LA premiere of Terence Rattigan's "Flare Path," a stirring drama about RAF fliers in World War II and their wives. Set in October 1940 and first produced in 1942, midway through the war, it was revived in London in 2011. But chances are most Angelenos have never heard of it, let alone seen it.

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"Flare Path," photo by Ed Krieger.

It hasn't aged nearly as badly as "What the Butler Saw," perhaps because its tone is realistic to the point of understatement, even as it imports a Hollywood star to complicate the lives of its other characters. Rattigan's depiction of people in a wartime crucible is still all too convincing, considering that war has hardly vanished in the intervening decades. Bruce Gray's staging looks and sounds surprisingly authentic, abetted by Joseph Slowinski's intriguing sound design, which specializes in subtle variations on aircraft noises. The performances are superb.

Also continuing the mid-century British theme in Beverly Hills, "Love, Noel" is a two-person revue of Coward's songs, many of them focusing on his relationships with famous women, as opposed to his more personal life as a barely-closeted gay man. Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence read from some of Coward's letters as well as sing. The director is Jeanie Hackett, who was instrumental in bringing Coward's what-if-the-Germans-had-won play, "Peace in Our Time," to Antaeus two years ago.

Your reaction to "Love, Noel" may depend on how many other Coward revues you've seen. I've seen several, and this one doesn't especially stand out. But it's a treat to see it in the Wallis Annenberg Center's black-box cabaret space, next door to the main Annenberg theater, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Into the Woods" is currently entrancing audiences in Amanda Dehnert's imaginative take on the Sondheim/Lapine masterpiece.

Back to Coward for a moment - a Malibu Playhouse production of his 1924 play "The Vortex" closed over the weekend at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. 1924 isn't exactly mid-century, but director Gene Franklin Smith re-set the play in the '60s. It remained surprisingly lively, especially because of a third-act mother-son confrontation that is much meatier, angrier and more somber than anything that you might expect from Coward (unless, that is, you're one of the relatively few who has seen "Peace in Our Time.")


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