As a theater critic in a city famous for making movies, I sometimes meet new acquaintances who assume that I see a lot of movies and TV. With the theater, movies and TV often drawing on the same talent pools, wouldn't critics keep up with all of it?
Sorry, but no. Several hundred professional stage productions are produced in LA each year. Many of them require travel time as well as viewing time. Trying to also keep up with most movies and the relentless streams of acclaimed TV programs sounds impossible.
Nevertheless, many of my new acquaintances probably imagine that I would surely see most of the movies that are directly based on plays, right? Not necessarily. I've seen too many examples of bad movies based on plays - and bad plays based on movies.
In the last several weeks, however, I saw a couple of stage productions that inspired me to then watch the movie versions, for very different reasons.
Let's start with "The Baby Dance: Mixed," Jane Anderson's rewrite of her "The Baby Dance." The original initially opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1990. It quickly found its way to off-Broadway, where it was trashed by then-New York Times critic Frank Rich. Nonetheless, it survived to be transformed into a 1998 Peabody Award-winning and Anderson-directed Showtime movie - which, of course, I hadn't seen. Now Anderson has written a new stage version. It opened last weekend at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura.
The title refers to the uneasy negotiations that occur between a wealthy LA couple, unable to have their own child, and a poor Louisiana couple, who are expecting but who can't afford their fifth child. The Angelenos hope to adopt the soon-to-arrive infant and endow her with a relatively prosperous life.
In the original play and in the film, the LA couple specifically advertised in adoption circles for a "healthy white baby." Both of the couples were white. The story's conflicts were primarily class-based. In 2016 terms, that means that the Louisiana couple probably would have voted for Trump and the LA couple for Clinton.
However, in the new version of the play, the would-be mom from LA is African-American. So is the Louisiana couple. And the LA couple requests "a healthy African-American baby,." although the would-be dad from LA remains white - and Jewish.
The play is still set entirely in Louisiana, first in a trailer park and then in a hospital. But while the Louisiana white couple in the first version looked down on their unseen black neighbors, the Louisiana black couple in the rewrite sneer at their unseen Mexican-American neighbors.
In both versions, the unemployed biological father, while seeking more lucrative benefits from the would-be adoptive father, briefly unleashes a burst of anti-Semitism. In the older version of the play, that same Louisiana man questioned the all-white LA couple's liberal credentials by citing their request for a white baby; now he challenges the biracial LA couple's biracial credentials by asking about their request for a black baby.
Out of concern about spoilers, I won't discuss how the play ends, but at least one of the characters probably emerges with even more psychological distress in this version than in the earlier edition. However, that feeling isn't articulated as much as it could have been. I wanted to hear more of it.
This doesn't reflect on the strong Rubicon cast or its director Jenny Sullivan, who also staged the first version of the play. The production is deeply involving. Yet as I left, I had a nagging sensation that the play could be improved if the ending were somewhat more extended. So I decided to find a copy of the film version of the play, which apparently is available only on VHS. I wanted to see how Anderson resolved her story in her screenplay.
The verdict? The movie feels much more complete than either stage version, and it's even more poignant. Of course we see more of the Louisiana environment. Through the eyes of all four of the prospective parents, we also catch evocative glimpses of the four growing children of the Louisiana couple, who are completely absent in the stage plays. In the film, the two potential fathers interact in a somewhat more relaxed setting, before they later come to literal blows.
Finally, the movie closes on a stunningly powerful image, which reminds us of which individual really has the biggest stake in this "baby dance." This film deserves a long-overdue DVD release, if not widespread streaming options.
On to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical take on "School of Rock." I had never seen the popular 2003 film comedy - about a would-be rock star who lies his way into a temporary job as a substitute teacher at a prep school, where he hijacks the curriculum and turns his young charges into a rock band. Nor had I seen the recent Nickelodeon series.
On opening night at the Pantages Theatre, the Lloyd Webber/Glenn Slater/Julian Fellowes musical struck me as almost entirely implausible, overblown and just a little Trumpian in its disdain for anything other than cheesy showmanship. The designers attempted to suggest a rock concert in the 2700-seat hall, complete with sometimes inaudible lyrics in too many songs, more than they tried to suggest a stuffy prep school or the protagonist's crummy apartment.
Having lowered my expectations with the musical, I then watched the movie - and I had a much better time. Written by Mike White and directed by Richard Linklater, the film naturally relied on authentic-looking exteriors and the greater subtleties of close-ups to underline the contrasts between the protagonist's over-the-top dreams and the more repressed universe of the other characters. Although the story and the overall attitude didn't change much from movie to musical, I sympathized a lot more with the movie's depiction of the children's crusade led by Dewey (Jack Black), perhaps because I caught more convincing glimpses of his ability to actually teach these kids something about his passion.
Now that I've been somewhat charmed by the movie, which probably puts me in the same boat as many of the audience members who see the musical at the Pantages, I'm wondering if I just might like the musical a little more if I were to see it again. Would I feel a little closer to already being "in the band" (to quote from perhaps the show's best musical number) than I did when I walked into the Pantages as a "School of Rock" first-grader? Might I better appreciate the ways in which the musical is different? I'll have to test that theory, the next time a production opens in LA.
And now for a few words about a wonderful play that should never be turned into a movie - "Bad Jews," by Joshua Harmon. It's about four young adults having scalding but also funny conversations in one crowded apartment, where they're all trying to spend the night under very emotional circumstances. The story takes place in real time.
I initially saw "Bad Jews" in 2015 at the Geffen Playhouse. It was effectively intense there, but in the hands of a skilled team in a much smaller venue at the Odyssey Theatre, a few miles from the Geffen, it's even more red-hot. Perhaps I especially felt the heat because I was sitting in the front row.
For those who haven't seen it, it's about two millennial Jewish cousins treating each other badly, in a dispute over who gets to inherit a token from their late grandfather's tragic history. The two of them articulate contrasting views on a cultural and religious spectrum that could easily resonate with non-Jews from many other cultures. Two other characters -a mostly passive observer and a blonde non-Jew who more or less represents "the other" here - also contribute to pivotal moments in the conversation. Director Dana Resnick keeps Harmon's pot boiling.
That's a lot more than I can say for a another four-character play, Amy Herzog's "Belleville" at Pasadena Playhouse or even for Harmon's own "Significant Other," which recently played the Geffen. The latter play, about a gay man who feels abandoned as his women friends begin getting married, also displayed Harmon's facility with exquisite rants but wasn't the real-time powder keg that "Bad Jews" is.
And finally, a grateful nod to one other four-person ensemble - the quartet who sing "Blues in the Night" at the Wallis, as well as the great band that backs them up. The director is Sheldon Epps, in his first major post-Pasadena directing job in the LA area. He conceived "Blues in the Night" more than 35 years ago, and now he's demonstrating that even the denizens of Beverly Hills can feel the blues in the night.