As soon as I noticed that the main character in the new novel "Fowl Play" is the chief theater critic of "LA Observer," of course I had to read the book.
No, the book's "LA Observer" is not a thinly veiled reference to LA Observed. It's a thinly veiled reference to the LA Weekly. The author of "Fowl Play" is Steven Leigh Morris (right), formerly the theater editor and chief critic at the Weekly, more recently the founder of the Stage Raw website, and currently the executive director of LA Stage Alliance.
So, even if the fictional "Seth Jacobson" (the name of the Morris doppelganger) had not worked at "LA Observer," I was looking forward to the possibility of reading a roman à clef set against the backdrop of LA theater. Books that mention Los Angeles theater are rare birds.
Speaking of birds, it turns out that "Fowl Play" is more about the "Fowl" in the title than it is about the "Play." Longtime Morris readers will recall that he wrote not only about theater in the Weekly, but also about his efforts to raise chickens in an urban LA setting. "Fowl Play" was inspired more by these experiences than it was by Morris' primary beat for the Weekly.
He refers to at least a handful of real theatrical productions that occurred in Los Angeles that "Seth" (presumably along with Morris himself) witnessed, but these references exist mainly for the purpose of providing metaphoric commentary on what's happening in the rest of Seth's life. His brief accounts of the gradual diminution of theater coverage (and therefore his job) at the Observer serve a similar purpose.
As someone who has never considered raising chickens but who sees plenty of plays, I might have been a bit disappointed to realize that "Fowl Play" is a roman à poulet instead of a roman à players-in-LA-theater.
Yet as I kept reading, I realized that Morris also emphasizes another arena — the politics and personalities of his hybrid co-op/condo community — as much as he focuses on the chickens and more than he focuses on LA theater.
As a former HOA board member in an LA condominium complex, I was regaled primarily by Morris' amusing tales drawn from the microcosmic self-government that occurs in a multi-unit community. Flaming passions arise over issues that, in retrospect, appear remarkably trivial. In the right hands, this is a recipe for deadpan comedy, and this is where the book hits its stride.
I had a few problems with the unfurling of a couple of narrative strands near the end of the book, but let us not discuss possible spoilers here.
I'm not a literary critic; I see and read so many plays that I haven't had the time to acquire a breadth of knowledge of other novels that might address the subjects that "Fowl Play" addresses. However, I must take this opportunity to offer an endorsement of another novel that also includes some references to LA theater, even though it was published two years ago.
Diane Haithman's "Dark Lady of Hollywood" hasn't received the attention it deserves. It's a wildly witty and intensely readable tale, told from the perspectives of two different characters — a male, 36-year-old TV comedy exec who has been diagnosed with cancer, and a younger, biracial woman who works for the preening diva who hosts "America's most popular daytime talk show" -- Really, Girlfriend? They usually take turns narrating, chapter by chapter.
Theater references arise from both of the major characters. Ophelia, the diva handler, is a would-be actress who takes lessons at a storefront theater. Ken Harrison, the TV exec, claims to have "left a permanent ass print in a seat in the back row of every theater with fewer than ninety-nine seats within a fifty-mile radius of Burbank." He's also an avid reader of Shakespeare, when he isn't overseeing decidedly non-Shakespearean efforts for network television.
After they meet on the lot, Ken begins envisioning Ophelia as his equivalent of Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which leads both of them into turbulent waters. Ken's chapters are usually preceded by resonant quotes from the Bard.
The biggest laugh related to LA theater occurs near the end, when the creation of a new Shakespearean repertory company is announced — although, again, I won't explain the circumstances for fear of playing spoiler.
Full disclosure advisory: I am on a first-name basis with both of these authors. Indeed, in my final LA Observed column of 2015, I described Morris' fiery riposte to something I wrote (about an issue that he doesn't discuss in his novel.) Haithman and I worked together on the arts staff of the Los Angeles Times. But I haven't discussed my reactions to their books with either of them.
Both "Fowl Play" and "Dark Lady of Hollywood" refer to "Romeo and Juliet," among other classics. "Fowl Play" begins with a scene in which critic Seth shows up just a little late to review a performance of an adaptation called "Romeo and Julio" at the Hudson Theatre. Complications ensue.
So, as I was reading these books recently, it was fun to see not only the most famous "R & J" adaptation, "West Side Story" (in Long Beach; see my last column), but also the original "Romeo and Juliet," now in rep at A Noise Within in Pasadena.
Actually, Dámaso Rodriguez's staging for ANW is like the original in the way it sounds, but its look is closer to that of "West Side Story." The design (sets and costumes by Angela Balogh Calin, lighting by Jared Sayeg, sound by Martin Carrillo) is contemporary US-urban, with a graffiti-covered wall "memorializing lost youth," notes Rodriguez inside the program. It uses dumpsters, shipping pallets and steel ladders as set pieces and includes a mystically haunting scene in which dresses become muted chandeliers.
Romeo is played by the slender and seductive Will Bradley ("Stupid Fucking Bird," "Miravel"). Donnla Hughes' Juliet seems less pre-pubescent than Shakespeare might have imagined, becoming more of an equal partner in the couple's defiance and ultimate doom. Rafael Goldstein, who was once best known for his work at Zombie Joe's but is now in his eleventh role at A Noise Within, plays Mercutio with a driving clarity.
Donnla Hughes and Will Bradley in "Romeo and Juliet." Photos: Daniel Reichert