Randall Arney is bringing a sample of his Chicago roots to Westwood.
In 2000, Geffen Playhouse producing director Gil Cates chose Arney to be the Geffen’s artistic director. Arney held the same title at Chicago’s world-class SteppenwolfÂ Theatre from 1987 to 1995 but had moved to LA in 1997.Â In his new job at the Geffen, many assumed Arney would be creating a kind of Steppenwolf West. But instead he developed an artistic vision specifically geared to his new life in Southern California.
This month, however, Arney is celebrating his longstanding relationship with the Chicago company and its most significant playwright, Tracy Letts, with the West Coast premiere of Superior Donuts, Letts’ first play following his Pulitzer-winning blockbuster August: Osage County.
Arney makes it clear that any relationship between the Geffen and Steppenwolf is purely personal. “There really isn’t any official connection.Â Steppenwolf, as it should, creates for Chicago audiences. It would be pointless for me to try to transplant that out here when what we’re trying to do is create for Los Angeles. That said, my choices in new plays have certainly influenced the work here.Â Gil Cates and I come from very different backgrounds and very different tastes.Â That helps us present a well balanced season.”
Part of that season is the newest play by Letts, his longtime friend and colleague. “I’ve known Tracy for 25 years or so.Â He was an actor in his own theater company in Chicago called Famous Door Theater.Â He first worked with Steppenwolf in our education-outreach program as an actor.Â In 1993 I was the first director of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapine Agile, created for our second stage.Â Tracy was the original Freddy the bartender. After a hugely successful run in Chicago, the first stop was LA, coincidentally in this space, then the Westwood Playhouse, and it ran about ten months with Tracy in the role.
“Tracy came very late to play writing.Â The first one was Killer Joe in 1991, and since then his journey has just been amazing.” Letts’ earlier plays are fascinating, funny,Â grotesque, disturbing, and small ““ none seemed to predict the scale that would define both the staging and critical response for August: Orange County. As both an artist and a friend, Arney has been awestruck at Letts’ progress.
Letts “once told me that he started writing Superior Donuts while still working on August because he had a feeling August would be a big show and might be received well.Â Before he got caught into that rush, he wanted to be sure he’d already started something else so he wouldn’t be pigeonholed by August.Â Tracy lifted himself out of that world by creating Superior Donuts.
“Superior is the first play he wrote about his adopted home Chicago.Â One of the themes is how family gets redefined; how we adopt new families when we get to an urban environment.Â That paralleled Tracy writing his first play about his adopted home town.”
Arney’s recent artistic life has been about creating new works in Southern California, so he had no official role in the development of Superior Donuts. However, he was privy to various versions of the script during its development with director Tina Landau.Â “When it became available to us at the Geffen I raised my hand and got excited about it. I am always attracted to really good actor material. One of the things I just love about the play is that it is a wonderful ensemble piece:Â nine actors, all of them vital to the telling of the story.
“The play has such heart and warmth, even as it is set in a gritty Chicago street corner.Â My attraction to it really was from the point of view of the actors.Â I also just love what the play has to say, not only about the redefinition of family, but the redefinition of the country. There is a Langston Hughes poem refrain that runs through the play: “˜America will be’, as we watch the street corner donut shop becoming gentrified…So we sit on this street corner and watch it changing ““ not only the street, but family relationships from traditional Polish, Russian, African-American neighborhoods — and we watch all that get mixed up into the melting pot.”
This world provides a backdrop for the main character Arthur, who is part of a generation of men who years earlier were caught in the dilemma of going to Vietnam or hiding out in Canada.Â Arney continues, “Their lives were forever changed by that choice.Â It is a wonderful central character. I was really attracted to watching him, whose light seems about to go out at the beginning of the play, but then he finds this new family. This play will surprise some people.Â It is so much fun to hear such a different voice coming from Tracy.Â It still is gritty and urban.Â Yet it does have a warmth and an optimism.Â A lightness perhaps that will surprise an audience –Â even though you will probably remember that no matter how dark some of the tones of August were, the ride itself was actually fun and funny.”
Arney considers himself a Californian now. “I love the Geffen Playhouse. It is a wonderful space and a wonderful area.Â There is such an incredible artistic talent pool on the ground here in LA.Â When Gil and I first began talking about this, the idea of lighting up a midsized, very exciting, provocative theater for Los Angeles was a daunting thought, yet an exciting thought all at the same time.Â I am thrilled I have been able to apply everything I learned in Chicago for those 17 years in that incubator.”
It hasn’t been hard for him to keep his Chicago contacts up to date. “As I said when I got here, so many of my friends from Chicago have transplanted out here.Â That’s true of so many cities in America. A lot of their best talent has come here.Â My lead in this play is Gary Cole, whom I’ve known for 30 years as a fellow ensemble member at Steppenwolf. I have acted with him.Â I’ve directed him before.Â I get to come here and have so many talented people from all over the country who are out here looking for an opportunity to do plays and sleep in their own beds at night.Â It is exactly what we want to create.”
“Our mission is really about providing quality exciting theater for audiences in LA with an attractive home for the best playwrights, actors and directors.Â Once we got a chance to do the renovation of the space it lifted the limits of our artistic abilities, creating a state-of-the-art theater for audiences and artists as well. We lowered the stage five feet, which opened the proscenium and all of a sudden we were able to do two-story sets.Â Dropping the stage gave us all that much more height.Â What the audience can’t see is that backstage we opened up incredible amounts of wing space, so scenically it really lifted the limits on our ability to produce work here that also might be considered for work elsewhere.
Yet the Geffen is still “warm and so intimate. We really helped our ability to realize the work a bit better without sacrificing the audience experience. Part of our renovation was more comfortable, larger seating, better acoustics — all of the audience amenities as well. Along the way we were able to create a brand new second theater with 150 seats. That has been fun to play in as well.”
Although Arney still takes the odd acting job in film or television, he is much happier concentrating on theater.Â Directing continues to be his greatest passion. “I am a director who began as an actor. I usually approach the material with a very keen eye to what the challenges are for the actors and working with the actors.Â I understand what the actor’s job and challenges are.Â Working with the actors and designers just to tell the story is really my job in each production.Â Finding a way to put great people together and help them succeed is the way I would define what I do for the theater as a whole.
“We also stay very much in tune with everything being done in the other creative centers form the universe, whether New York or Chicago ““ we’re always fielding ideas.Â We try to balance a season that has a wide range of things for the audience.Â We commission two or three things at any time.Â Â I call them planes circling.Â We’re coaxing them down to the runways.”
**All Production Photography by Michael Lamont
Superior Donuts, presented by the Geffen Playhouse. Opens June 8. Ticket prices: $47 – $77. Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through July 10. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Box office open daily or via phone at 310-208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com.