I admit I’m biased. As an artist and critic, I’m committed to LA’s small theatres. Seeing recent works at the city’s two premier venues forcefully reminded me of why.
Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson
One January night, I joined fellow Angelenos to watch 89-year-old Angela Lansbury caper about the stage in a 74-year-old comedy, spinning a supporting role into a star turn.
Everyone expected her to: she’s been an international presence in stage, film and TV for over 50 years. And she didn’t disappoint. As the ditzy medium who summons the spirit, Lansbury took the stage (unfazed by small-town entrance applause) and held it, never out of character yet never out of contact with the audience. She didn’t steal attention, she claimed it — but she also yielded it on cue. And her immense energy never lapsed, even while docilely listening.
To their credit, her fellow actors (Charles Edwards, Jemima Rooper and Charlotte Parry) held their own, also unflagging in their energy and focus. They served up the Noël Coward farce and kept it flying, like a fast game of table tennis.
But Lansbury did something they couldn’t. She gave a master class in “Using What You’ve Still Got.” To create Mme. Arcati, she let her aging body and voice reveal the cracks most actors (and the rest of us) try to hide — a tremor here, a hesitation or sudden cough there. Then, with her decades of song and dance experience, she wove them into her character. Stumbling, catching herself, Mme. Arcati emerged as a woman roused from senescence by the siren call of a snarky ghost.
This Blithe Spirit was like a Yo-yo Ma cello concerto. One instrument, in a master’s hands, leading an entire consort through the familiar music. It was a joy to behold.
But the music is familiar. And while it’s delightfully well made, it’s a trifle — a very light comedy about the different hopes women and men bring to love. Its insights haven’t faded with age, but everything else about it has.
Walking down off the hill, I couldn’t help notice there were 2,000 of us there, for just one performance — out of two or three dozen.
At $40 a ticket, that’s a box-office gross of near $2 million. For this one show. The whole year’s budget for 20 or 30 of LA’s medium-size theatres. Enough to keep 100 of our black-box houses running all year and longer.
Is it worth it? Well, it’s a farewell performance by a master artist. But do we need to invest $2 million — plus funds from foundations and donors — to bring it here? With all but one of the eight actors and understudies flown in from New York and London? Is this LA theatre’s top priority?
It is where the money’s going. And a small handful of folks (mostly male, mostly white, mostly well-off) made the decision. Their next investment is another farewell tour, an 81-year-old Australian man playing a pretend Dame. Then, a stage version of a 65-year-old TV musical. Really?
Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward, directed by Michael Blakemore.
Presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
The Price at the Mark Taper Forum
A mild February night, I trudge up Bunker Hill to see Arthur Miller’s seldom-done The Price. In the featured role is Alan Mandell, an LA theatre legend who 60 years ago helped found Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco (and bring Samuel Beckett to the US stage).
We’re at the 740-seat Mark Taper, which holds the Center Theatre Group’s portfolio for innovative work (now shared with the 320-seat Kirk Douglasdown by the water in Culver City). The house is about three-fourths full. A kids’ dream fortress of old furniture is stacked up to the ceiling, everywhere but the apron.
Sam Robards, Kate Burton and John Bedford Lloyd turn in credible performances. They’re a cop, his wife and his rich brother, grimly locked in a battle of old family grievances.
Mandell plays an aged furniture dealer called out of retirement to make an offer on the dead paterfamilias’ hoard. With nothing much at stake, he has himself an evening of wry fun. The family members turn up their noses, so he shares it with the audience.
Like Lansbury, Mandell artfully lends elements of his own aging to his character — then uses his actor’s energy and experience to weld them into a portrait. By midway, when we’ve learned who he is, we start to laugh the moment he wanders onstage from a nap, or stops in frustration as a young buck cuts him off. It’s lovely, leisurely work that almost steals the scene — but instead holds the play together.
And the play needs it. In its opening scenes, we meet the dealer and watch the cop and his wife talk past each other. Then the brother shows up for an hour and more of antler-bashing as the siblings circle the stage, refusing to yield, slowly dragging painful memories out of each other. Only the old man makes it palatable.
Twenty years before The Price, Miller wrote his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman. This one mines the same material — a failed father, his two sons, the conflict between a struggling brother and a rich one. In Salesman, we’re in Linda’s house, watching her husband, her sons — and listening at the end to her voice. In The Price, Esther stands ringside, helpless and whining. Without a strong female container, we just get boys in a pissing contest.
Coward’s witty clockwork may survive, as a period piece, like those of Oscar Wilde. But after 50 years, we can safely say The Price should be broken up and sold at auction. Its only saving grace is Mandell atop his game, in one of his farewell performances.
And again, the folks at Center Theatre Group have mounted a show that the gate (about half a million) won’t even pay for. Why?
What urgency propelled this never fully written, dying chestnut onto one of LA’s premier stages? If we want to invite esteemed Irish director Garry Hynes to work with Mandell, why this of all plays?
Sigh. Money is no guarantee of quality. And fear of money, which chairs too many meetings in the castles on the hill, does not make bold artistic decisions. No matter what a 60-page, 4-color program says. With what it cost to print that slick mag, Theatre Unleashed or Ebony Rep could mount a show or two. For my money, that’s the work LA theatre needs to be doing.
The Price, by Arthur Miller, directed by Garry Hynes.
Presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00pm, Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30pm; through March 22.
Disclaimer: I lift an eyebrow at the advanced age of the “star” actors in both plays, and of the plays themselves. I can get away with this, being a senior myself; don’t try it at home if you’re under 50.