LA Times' shrinking local theater coverage, 'Falsettos' and 'The Niceties'

falsettos-handout.jpgAudrey Cardwell and Bryonha Marie Parham in "Falsettos." Photo by Joan Marcus.


Recently the Los Angeles Times snagged its first Pulitzer Prize since Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the newspaper and restored local ownership. The prize-winning series of investigative articles was about a USC gynecologist accused of years of abuse -- in other words, a local story.

The award vindicates the Times strategy of focusing first on home-town topics. This priority might reduce the visibility of the LA Times brand in the national buzz that accompanies the daily scoops by East Coast news organizations about our ongoing national emergency in the White House. But if I have to choose, I'm grateful that the LA Times emphasizes subjects closer to home, in its editorials as well as its news. Most of these matters probably wouldn't be covered -- or uncovered -- by the East Coasters.

Unfortunately, this home-turf focus of the Times hasn't filtered down to its coverage of the topic that professionally interests me the most -- Southern California's vast and lively theater scene.

Of course, the space in the print edition of the Times and its advertising revenues are greatly reduced from the years (1990-2006) when I was one of the Times employees working full-time on the theater beat. I also realize that most of the current culture-related advertising in the Times promotes movies, TV, pop/rap/rock/country music -- and televised awards shows for these mostly for-profit endeavors.

These mass-media arts, plus food, books and visual art, probably seem more accessible to many Times readers than theater. The total seating capacity of LA's theaters on any day is probably a small fraction of the numbers of consumers who might stream a movie or a series or a recording, download a book, dine out, or go to LA's museums -- which are ongoing tourist destinations in a way that theaters can't be.

Still, if the Times is dedicated to exploring distinctive local phenomena, theater is an important ingredient. A theatrical production provides a non-digital experience in the here and the now for everyone who gathers in that space at that time, whether we're in the audience or in the production. While dance, concerts and opera offer many of these same live-performance qualities, professional theater is more widespread. And while each performance will be unique, theater productions usually are available longer than dance and music events, offering more chances to participate.

Let's look at some numbers. The "Openings" column in the April 14 and 21 theater sections of the printed Times Calendar section listed openings of 43 theater productions. I'll eliminate the 12 that appeared to last only one day or one weekend or that were not-for-review readings or workshops. That leaves 31 productions eligible for review in only two weeks, leaving aside any that didn't get listed in the Times. At this rate, the total count of such productions in 2019 would probably reach at least 700.

How many of these will the Times review? Well, so far in 2019, through April 24, the print edition of the Times has run 35 reviews of theater productions in Greater LA (LA, Orange and Ventura counties). Times theater critic Charles McNulty, whose reviews usually begin on the front page of Calendar, wrote 14. Free-lancers, whose reviews are likelier to begin farther back in the section, handled the other 21. At this rate, the printed Times will review about 122 of the estimated 700-plus local productions this year -- less than 20 per cent.

Since 2019 began, McNulty also reviewed seven productions in New York and two in San Diego. If 2019 is like previous years, Times readers will soon see more McNulty reviews and analysis from Broadway, plus related theater features and news from NYC, as the days tick down to the Tony TV show on June 9. The Times usually behaves as if the Tonys were somehow national theater awards -- even though only 34 Manhattan-based productions are eligible for them this year. It doesn't matter that the awards take place 2,500 miles away and that the vast majority of Times readers won't have heard of many of the nominated productions -- as long as some of the Tonys are presented live on a national TV show.

Some of McNulty's Tony-related reviews are much more newsworthy than others. For example, I'm interested in the new "Tootsie" musical, reviewed on the front page of Calendar on Wednesday. Yet it was preceded on Tuesday's Calendar front by a mixed review from New York of the umpteenth "All My Sons" revival. Meanwhile, yet another "All My Sons" is playing right now in Hollywood, so far unreviewed by the Times. Which of the two would be easier for Angelenos to see?

Unlike Broadway's Tonys, the Ovations -- LA's annual peer-judged theater awards -- lack a network TV contract for their annual show. So I'm not surprised that I can't find one word in the Times, online or in print, about the last Ovations ceremony on January 28, at downtown LA's Theatre at Ace Hotel. A few days ago, when I used the latimes.com search engine to look for "Ovation Awards," 15 of the first 24 results were about the Ovation Arts Awards in Allentown, PA. (the local newspaper there is owned by the company that used to own the Times, which might begin to explain this weird response). Only four of the results referred to (pre-2019) LA Ovation awards.

A few local productions are reviewed in the online Times but not in print. Freelancer Margaret Gray's positive review of "Canyon," a recent LA-set play that I discussed in my last column, didn't make the Times print edition, but at least a capsule review ran in the printed Critics' Choices section of Calendar.

Times online reviews are easy to miss, unless you know the name of the play and Google it - which works better than trying to find it through latimes.com. I initially tried to find the review of "Canyon" on the Times website by giving the Times search engine the words "Canyon" and "LATC" (where the production occurred). Fifteen results emerged, but the review of LATC's "Canyon" was not among them. However, a "99-Seat Beat" column that mentioned "Canyon" came up.

The 99-Seat Beat column, supposedly but not necessarily weekly, was created in 2017 in an apparent attempt to compensate for the declining theater coverage in the usual review, feature and news formats. It normally consists of pre-opening blurbs about 2-4 productions, with somewhat more detail than you would find in an Openings listing. The free-lance writers of these blurbs usually have not yet seen the productions, although they might express an opinion about the script. This hasn't stopped some publicists and theater companies from quoting from these blurbs in ads, as if they were favorable production reviews, attributable to the LA Times. By the way, don't assume that these productions are in venues with 99 seats; their seating capacities are likely to be either smaller or larger than 99.

Rather than the 99-Seat Beat, I'd like to see more local reviews, plus a transformation of the information in the already-written weekly Openings lists into an ongoing "Now Playing" list -- certainly on the website, if not in the more cramped print edition. If the Times made such a list easily accessible online and revised it regularly, those readers who wanted to see a show but didn't have one in mind could scan it to see a much wider range of possibilities than those currently listed as "Critics' Choices." For more informed guidance, this proposed online list could furnish a link to Times reviews -- however meager that supply of reviews might be.

I don't know if Patrick Soon-Shiong attends LA theater, but one intriguing detail about the biography of his wife Michele Chan is that she acted in TV and movies in Hollywood during the '80s and early '90s. Chan told a Smithsonian oral historian that while growing up in South Africa, she attended drama school at the University of the Witwatersrand and that "I was the first Chinese student in a drama school" [in South Africa?] while her husband, a doctor, broke a similar racial barrier in formerly all-white hospitals. "It's given us an appreciation of how hard you have to fight for what you want, and it has made us a family of risk-takers."

Judging from periodic letter writers to the Times (here's one from last Sunday), LA theater fans want more coverage of LA theater in their home-town newspaper. How much of a risk would it be to give them what they want?

Briefly

Here are brief comments on a few of the shows I've seen since my last column:

"Falsettos," at the Ahmanson. This initially amusing and finally stirring revival of William Finn's sung-through musical about neurotic New Yorkers, set in 1979-81, is in great shape in a theater that I might have guessed would be too big for it. The show's basic situation of a husband (golden-voiced Max von Essen) who is torn between his wife and his boyfriend also appears in the West Coast premiere of Nicky Silver's more contemporary but surprisingly Chekhovian "Too Much Sun" (not a musical), which also maintains a balance between the banter and the bitter, directed by Bart DeLorenzo at the Odyssey.

"The Niceties," at Geffen Playhouse, is a biting confrontation that goes viral, between two women -- a millennial student of color (Jordan Boatman) and a boomer-generation white professor (Lisa Banes), at a Yale-like university. Although Eleanor Burgess set her script in 2016 before the election, it resonated in my brain even to such 2019 concerns as whose voice will represent the Democrats in 2020. Meanwhile, Kevin Artigue's "Sheepdog," at South Coast Repertory, also is a two-hander (with other recorded voices) about two cops -- a black woman (Erika LaVonn) and a white man (Lea Coco) who share a home as well as an employer -- until something terrible happens on the job. It's moderately involving but might be more so if the offstage victim materialized.

theniceties-handout.jpgJordan Boatman and Lisa Banes in The Niceties. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

"Fiddler on the Roof," at the Pantages and then at the Segerstrom Center, introduces Bartlett Sher's recent Broadway staging of the Bock/Harnick/Stein classic to LA, even though it's in the hands of a non-Equity cast, headed by charismatic Israeli actor Yehezkal Lazarov. Although I couldn't see the details of the faces from my distant seat, the music sounds terrific, and the stage and choreography are effectively evocative. Sher's primary innovation was to briefly frame the overall narrative between appearances by a silent man (also Lazarov) from our own time who transforms into Tevye and then back again.

A Noise Within's spring season in Pasadena. My favorite of the shows in rep is the revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," which director Geoff Elliott perfected after a 1996 production at the company's previous Glendale home. He's assisted by a great quartet of actors, Kristin Campbell's projection designs and a larger stage that enables the play's sense of "memory" to become ever more haunting. Meanwhile, Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the Jason/Medea story in "Argonautika," directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, is visually ingenious but somewhat too plot-heavy. Jessica Kubzansky's well-played version of Shakespeare's "Othello" sets the story in the contemporary US military, which is a good-enough idea - but I had seen this concept in at least one previous production.

"The Mother of Henry," recently closed at LATC. Evelina Fernandez took us into the life of a woman working at Sears in Boyle Heights in 1968, as her son is fighting in Vietnam. Her political sensibility changes as the year goes on, depicted in terrific projections by Yee Eun Nam. While dark moments abounded, Fernandez and director Jose Luis Valenzuela also maintained a light touch, including visitations with a straight-talking Virgen de Guadalupe, period music and bracing movement. "Mother of Henry" connects thematically with Elaine Romero's "Revoluciones," which opened in a smaller LATC space last weekend. The latter is about a woman whose adult son "disappeared" in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship. It's a short, movement-infused, dream-textured play, starkly produced by Mexico's Foro Shakespeare, in Spanish with English supertitles. On opening weekend, the supertitles were largely obstructed, but a later statement from director Bruno Bichir said they'll be fixed immediately.

"Poor Yella Rednecks," at South Coast Repertory. The sequel to Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone" shares much of the same ingenuity of style and stagecraft. But the narrative about Vietnamese refugees in the '70s, set entirely in the United States instead of partially in Vietnam, is less distinctive and dramatic -- although still compelling enough to satisfy most fans of the original.

By the way, a second South Coast Repertory premiere of a play with a southeast Asian theme, Lauren Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band," recently repeated the one-two awards sweepstakes that "Vietgone" achieved three years ago. First it won Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's best-premiere-in-Greater-LA Schmitt award, then it won American Theatre Critics Association's Steinberg Award, for the best new American play not yet produced in New York. The Steinberg comes with $25,000 - more than the $15,000 received by the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. No, the LA Times hasn't noticed.


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