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LA Stage Times

Parfumerie and Midler’s Mengers in Beverly Hills. CTG’s Downtown Drama.

by Don Shirley | December 9, 2013

Here’s the good news. A beautiful new space has joined the ranks of the midsize LA County theaters — that intrepid group of companies that are big enough to provide real wages to the artists but still small enough to provide a relatively intimate experience to audiences.

As an advocate of the midsize scene, I should be thrilled over the opening of the first play, Parfumerie, at the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater in the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

“Thrilled” isn’t quite the right word, however.

Deborah Ann Woll and Matt Walton in "Parfumerie." Photo by Jim Cox.

Deborah Ann Woll and Matt Walton in “Parfumerie.” Photo by Jim Cox.

Your final chance to see Parfumerie is Dec. 22. That’s right — it officially opened last Wednesday (after a weekend of previews), and it’ll play only two more weeks.

Sorry, but I remember the days when the last midsize theater in Beverly Hills, the Canon, played shows for months, even years. Admittedly it was a smaller, commercially-operated space that looked more like a storefront than an architectural landmark, and it specialized in small plays and musicals — without trying to be a comprehensive nonprofit  “performing arts center” like the Wallis.

But an actor’s job at the Canon might have lasted as long as many regular jobs, while an actor’s job at the Wallis is going to be more in the nature of one more gig.

Parfumerie is a well-paying gig, by LA stage standards. The Wallis is using a LORT-B contract with minimum payments of $788 a week, according to Actors’ Equity. But here’s the rub, as far as LA actors are concerned — not only is the Parfumerie run short, but it’s also the only locally-produced theatrical production in the Wallis’ first season. The one other play for adults, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, is imported from Kneehigh Theatre in England, and the two children’s theater productionsJason and the Argonauts and White — are imported from separate companies based in Scotland.

As far as I can tell from reading the season brochure, just about everything else in the first season also involves hiring artists (in dance and music) from outside LA instead of the locals. The Wallis may provide a boost to the businesses around it. Before I saw Parfumerie on opening night, I had dinner in a restaurant less than a block away. But it’s hardly providing a gusher of new employment for artists in the LA area — unless you count the would-be actors who are working as servers in the nearby establishments.

What’s it providing for LA’s audiences? Well, more about Parfumerie itself in a moment, but first this observation — the two plays for adults on the Wallis season are both set across the Atlantic Ocean, less than one year apart. Parfumerie is set in December 1937 in Budapest, and Brief Encounter — so says the Wallis brochure — is set in 1938 in England. Both of them are associated with famous movie romances — Parfumerie is a translation/adaptation of the original play on which three movies were based, and this version of Brief Encounter adapts parts of the famous screenplay into the Coward play (Still Life) on which the filmed Brief Encounter was based.

Jacob Kemp and Richard Schiff

Jacob Kemp and Richard Schiff

It looks as if the target audience for these two plays consists of very old adults whose idea of theater is something they can link to an old movie. If you toss in the two children’s theater productions, I see an institution that aims to serve kids and their grandparents (or even their great-grandparents) more than it aims to serve everyone else.

It also looks like an institution that reflects very little awareness at all of the larger community around it — as demonstrated not only by its inattention to LA artists but also by its complete lack of LA settings or themes, even Beverly Hills settings or themes, as well as its apparent lack of anything that’s specifically set in the 21st century (the one opera in the season, A Coffin in Egypt, is based on a Horton Foote play that originally opened in 1980).

Of course, more superficially, the Wallis does reflect its immediate neighborhood in terms of its ticket prices (remaining Parfumerie performance are priced at $59-$129) and in the fact that the lavish Allen Moyer-designed parfumerie set that’s on the stage right now looks as if it could have been lifted from a Beverly Hills boutique — or at least one of the more traditionally-minded shops in the Wallis neighborhood.  The current production is also accompanied by a perfume exhibition in the facility’s smaller theater — which, in its own way, reflects a certain stratum of Beverly Hills.

But if the Wallis is going to attract theatergoers from outside Beverly Hills (which, by itself, has a population of only 35,000), it might be smart to diversify its theatrical choices for next season — in almost any direction away from the Beverly Hills stereotypes.

Now, about Parfumerie itself.  I enjoyed the opportunity to see Mark Brokaw’s smoothly professional staging of Miklós Lázsló’s play, in no small part because I’m a fan of the stage musical She Loves Me, which was based on it. I look forward to every opportunity to see She Loves Me — and the LA area has provided a lot of them, including productions at the Ahmanson Theatre and Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1987, a Reprise staging in 2003 and a Rubicon Theatre revival in 2008. Chance Theater has already scheduled She Loves Me for a year from now in the company’s expanded quarters in Anaheim.

However, while it’s interesting for a She Loves Me fan to finally see the original source material in a contemporary-sounding translation by Florence Laszlo, with additional adaptation by the playwright’s nephew E. P. Dowdall, I’ve also got to say that Parfumerie isn’t nearly as enchanting as She Loves Me.

Wallis interior

Wallis interior

Although Moyer’s parfumerie set is splendid, the original play is chained to it, as opposed to the shifting locales within She Loves Me. And as the length of the play pushed close to three hours, it felt even longer than the musical.

The play gives more weight to the story of the shop’s owner (Richard Schiff) and his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity — yet it still doesn’t introduce the wife as a character. The owner’s story continually diverts our attention away from the lighter squabbling-lovers romance that is the unmistakable first priority of She Loves Me. And, despite the expert work of the actors who play the younger couple here — Eddie Kaye Thomas and Deborah Ann Woll — the romance isn’t nearly as vivid as it is in the musical.

This isn’t due only to the lack of musical numbers. For example, in the play, the two not-yet-in-love characters have already been sniping at each other for a long time, while in She Loves Me, we get to witness the first introduction of these two characters to each other.

In its defense, the play goes slightly farther than the musical in suggesting the perilous atmosphere in pre-World War II Budapest, mostly in one scene in which a police officer reminds the shop staff of a curfew. But this scene is so brief and unexplained that I didn’t really understand the ramifications of it until I read an LA STAGE Times interview with actor Arye Gross after I saw the play. Perhaps a fuller program note about it in the program would have helped.

Meanwhile, if you want to see a show that’s entirely set within Beverly Hills, leave Beverly Hills and go to Westwood, where Bette Midler is starring in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, at Geffen Playhouse. It’s set entirely within the late super-agent Mengers’ Beverly Hills home.

If this interests you, don’t delay. Based on my check of the box office earlier today, to get one of the few remaining seats you might have to pay at least $297.

Is it worth it? That depends on how wealthy you are, whether you were a personal friend of Mengers, or perhaps most important, whether you believe that “the Divine Miss M” — Midler, not Mengers — is literally divine.

Better Midler in "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers." Photo by Richard Termine.

Better Midler in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers.” Photo by Richard Termine.

I can sympathize somewhat with the Midler acolytes out there. She certainly knows to how fire off wisecracks from the Mengers mouth in a way that convinces us that the immigrant kid Mengers really did learn how to speak English from old-fashioned movie comedies, as the agent tells us in Logan’s script.

On the other hand, before paying $297 or $397 for one of the unsold tickets, Midler fans should also know that the divine one does not sing, dance, or even move from the sofa in Mengers’ Beverly Hills home during almost the entire show.

I’ve seen a lot of static one-person shows about famous people, but I’ve seldom seen one in which the famous actor playing the famous person moves most of her body so rarely. Given Logan’s script and Midler’s own storytelling talents, I’m wondering what exactly director Joe Mantello contributed to this production.

The show has its share of profane laughs and occasional darker hues, as we witness Mengers waiting for Barbra Streisand to call her, after just having been fired by Streisand’s lawyers — even as she expects one of her famous small dinner parties to occur later in the evening. But the scope of the production is awfully narrow — compared, for example, to that of the much livelier celebrity-on-the-ropes play End of the Rainbow, about Judy Garland.

I’m glad the Geffen is finally presenting a show that’s set entirely in the LA area (although Mengers also recalls her life in New York) — it’s been a long time since that happened. Of course this particular view of LA is of a very rarefied but commonly dramatized slice of the larger society. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the inflated ticket prices sound like something straight out of, well, Beverly Hills.

Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center, 9390 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills.  Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Closes Dec 22. 310-746-4000.

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, Geffen Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec. 22. 310-208-5454.

Center Theatre Group opened shows in both of its Music Center venues within the past week, yet neither is a holiday-related show. In fact, although the title of The Steward of Christendom, at the Mark Taper Forum, contains the word “Christ” within it, it will meet no one’s expectations of putting the “Christ” back into “Christmas.”

Mary-Pat Green and Brian Dennehy in "The Steward of Christendom." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Mary-Pat Green, Brian Dennehy and James Lancaster in “The Steward of Christendom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play is a glum portrait of an old man (Brian Dennehy) gradually slipping into dementia in 1932, while confined to an Irish mental hospital. Memories of his professional life, as a Dublin police chief just before Ireland became independent from the UK, mingle with memories of his three daughters — the youngest of whom was born as his wife lay dying — and of the son who was killed in World War I. And let’s not forget that he still had his position when Michael Collins was assassinated during the Irish Civil War.

Happy holidays!

CTG could have achieved much of the same effect on a much lower budget, and used up much less of its audience’s time and patience, simply by bringing John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape to the Taper, after its recent successful run at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Seriously, while there are a few qualities to admire in the language used by poet-turned-playwright-turned-novelist Barry, those qualities do not include clarity or economy, and they certainly don’t add up to a moving, transcendent experience of the sort that’s described in some of the reviews of the original production.

Because the play is written from the vantage point of 1932 but keeps drifting into the past, it feels like a hazy retrospective rather than a living drama that evokes the slightest sense of urgency. I can’t think of any reason why CTG would feel compelled to produce it, even if it were opening on St. Patrick’s Day — but December?

As with the Wallis programming discussed above, too often the leaders of our major theaters look across the Atlantic (or New York) and to previous eras instead of examining the living, breathing stories that are next door to where they live.

Ian Michael Stuart, John Sanders (seated on trunk), Lee Zarrett and Carl Howell with the company of “Peter and the Starcatcher." Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Ian Michael Stuart, John Sanders (seated on trunk), Lee Zarrett and Carl Howell with the company of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Meanwhile, next door to the Taper at the Ahmanson Theatre, Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher (based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers) is -– in some ways — a polar opposite in style and structure to The Steward of Christendom. It’s an almost ridiculously action-packed prequel to Peter Pan, told in a story-theater style, with a lot of updated quips that lend a contemporary playfulness to the material.

While I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed The Steward of Christendom, it too seems somewhat distant — and not only because its fantasy geography is also far removed from contemporary LA. It didn’t help my experience of Starcatcher that I had recently seen a more intimate Peter Pan variation (Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers) at the Blank Theatre. And once again, the Ahmanson seems too big for anything that isn’t a full-blown musical.

The Steward of Christendom, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm, Mon 8 pm Dec 23 and 30. Dark Dec 24-25, Jan 1. Closes Jan 7. 213-628-2772.

Peter and the Starcatcher, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand, LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Thu 2 pm Dec. 26 and Jan 2. Mon 8 pm Dec 23 and 30. Dark Dec 24-25, Jan 1. No 6:30 pm performance on Jan 5. Closes Jan 12. 213-972-4400.

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LA Stage Times

Remembering Joan Stein

by Suzi Dietz | August 7, 2012

Joan Stein, star Michael Cerveris and Suzi Dietz at the 1999 opening of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Henry Fonda

I met Joan Stein in the Berkshires in the early ’80s.  I had just opened L.A. Stage Company and Joan was managing the Berkshire Theatre Festival with Josie Abady.

Joan’s college roommate Eleanor Albano was working with me at Las Palmas Theatre, and she knew I was going to visit my college roommate Christina Conklin in Stockbridge (who ironically was working with Joan).  So she made sure that Joan and I met.  It was sisterhood at first sight.  Joan and I had so much in common.  We were neophytes, really, running serious theater companies and making it up as we went along.  But our shared passion for the theater and love of artists bonded us in a way that was palpable.  When Joan moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’80s, she brought with her the rights to Love Letters and asked me if I would produce it at the Pasadena Playhouse, which I was running at the time.  We put it up for six weeks in the small theater (now the Carrie Hamilton), where it became an instant hit.

Joan Stein and Suzi Dietz in 1995. Photo by Gerson Photography.

Soon after, we moved it to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, which I had been managing for Gucci, Inc. since 1983.  Love Letters ran for two years, with a new cast every week.  That was the beginning of a producing partnership that lasted the entire decade.  From 1990-2000, Joan and I ran the Canon, produced shows there and elsewhere, together and separately.  It was a heady time in LA theater — a rave in the LA Times could make a show run for a year! And many of our shows had that kind of longevity.

We shared amazing experiences, great friends, and some very satisfying projects.  Joan produced Forever Plaid with the original New York cast and then Ruthless with the great Bob Mackie doing the costumes.  After Ruthless ran its course, we produced The Last Night at Ballyhoo, starring Rhea Perlman and Harriet Harris; a very limited (and sold out) engagement of Neil LaBute’s Bash, directed by Joe Mantello and starring Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd; Bill Graham Presents starring Ron Silver; and Nude, Nude, Totally Nude, Andrea Martin’s one-woman show directed by Walter Bobbie. Our final production together was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring the extraordinary Michael Cerveris, which we put into the theater formerly known as the Henry Fonda (now the Music Box).

Anne Abrams, Eleanor Albano and Joan Stein at 100th performance of "Love Letters" at the Canon Theatre, 1990. Photo by Bob Ware.

Working with Joan every day was a blast.  She was hilarious and driven, volatile and affectionate, witty and salty.  Her energy was boundless.  Her dedication to the idea that theater””good theater””could be transformative was inspiring.  We wanted our work to be electrifying, emotional, enlightening, and entertaining all at the same time.  And much of the time it was.

In 2000, Joan made the decision to pursue a career in television.  Our paths diverged, but I will never forget the ’90s:  the places we went, the people we knew and the plays we produced.  As a tribute to Joan, I have put together words of remembrance from some of her many, many friends and colleagues.  This really is just a sampling. There are hundreds more testimonials on her Facebook page and on Twitter.  And I am sure in the coming months there will be thousands.

So, Joanie, here’s what people are saying about you.  How much you are loved and will always be remembered!  I’m sure you have found a heavenly home with Wendy Wasserstein and Nora Ephron, two of your uncommon sisters in art.  Like theirs, your voice will be missed by all who knew you, and so many who didn’t.  But your legacy is profound and will endure for decades to come.

Carol Burnett

In the 30 years since we’ve been friends, I never saw her without that beautiful smile”¦and that’s the way I’ll always remember her.

Andrea Martin

The last time I saw Joan, she was sitting in the theater on an opening night on Broadway. I don’t remember the play but I remember Joan’s face — alive with the excitement of another opening, brimming with joy for what she was about to see. We in the theater have lost a great impresario. They don’t make them like Joan anymore.

Scott Wittman

Joan Stein was an oasis to me in Los Angeles. She loved the theater and she loved the people in it. I am so proud to have worked and played with her on both coasts. These words from Auden remind me of Joan:

So I wish you first a
Sense of theatre; only

Those who love illusion
And know it will go far;
Otherwise we spend our
Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with
Who we really are.

Eleanor Albano

I designed a business plan for Joan in 2008 that included testimonials. As I can’t put pen to paper yet with my own thoughts, I offer those of Mr. Gelbart and Mr. Shaiman. I hope they approve. I know she would.

Larry Gelbart

l would trust Joan Stein with my money or my life. l would certainly trust her with my work, which, to me, tends to be more important than either of aforementioned valuables. Ms. Stein is a rarity: a business mind with a great sense of humor, a sense of what will play on the stage as well as at the box office and a sense of taste that is as reliable as a gyroscope. If she ever became a stock, l would buy a fistful of it. Now that she has, I probably will.

Marc Shaiman

Both professionally and personally, I feel about Joan Stein the way my ancestors felt about Moses, I’d follow her anywhere. Her business sense, if not her fashion sense, is uncanny. And besides all that, Joan is one of the good guys, disproving the worn out theory that they finish last. I have toiled steadily in show business for 30 years now (Google me, I’m exhausted) and I’ve known and collaborated with all sorts. I’d rather work with Joan.

Mark Sendroff

The magnificent Joan Stein and I grew up as close friends living four blocks from each other in Oceanside, Long Island.  Though privileged to have served as her lawyer throughout her uniquely triumphant career as a theater producer in New York and especially Los Angeles, I am grieving for the tragic loss of my irreplaceable lifelong friend.

Sam Harris

Joan had a rare combination of smart, savvy, funny, wry and kind, which made her a great producer. Even more extraordinary, she was responsible. She saw the theater as a place to make a difference. What a legacy to have touched so many people. And what a gift to those of us who got to witness her first hand.

Dan Bucatinsky

I came to Los Angeles at 27 with two things: a liberal arts degree and a dream of a career in show business.  Clearly the second made the first irrelevant.  Bottom line, I needed a job.  Joan was running the Canon Theater with Suzi Dietz at the time and was always hiring a box office staff made up of young aspiring artists.  We needed jobs and she gave us one.  We needed a place where we could feel like our dreams weren’t frivolous or misguided and she gave us support and encouragement. I had written a two-person sketch show and Joan offered up the theater to me on the dark night for free — to do my show. While doing that show at the Canon, I met my first literary agent and my writing career was launched.  Joan provided a sense of validity to what we were dreaming — a sense of community for those of us disenfranchised by our dreams — and plenty of laughs along the way.  Joan was an inspiration as a producer, a leader, a cultivator of talent — as a den mother.  I met my husband of 20 years while working at the Canon. So I feel like my story — my work and my family — is part of the legacy of Joan Stein.

Caroline Aaron

Joan came into my life at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in the late ’70s. She was my big sister Josie’s partner.  When Josie died, Joan told me she and Josie were pretending to know what they were doing, both in their 20s running a prestigious theater with no experience.  But they triumphed, as Joan continued to do from then on, no matter what the challenge.  And there was no pretending involved. She was creative, talented, smart, fun, ambitious, and courageous. She wore power like a lady and made being in charge a feminine trait. A leader without being imperious, she was a girl’s girl.  A ladies’ lunch, a writer’s note session, a sale at Bloomingdales, or an opening night all had her special trademark — a love of life and of all the people and artists who were lucky enough to call her friend and colleague.

Paul Rudd and Calista Flockhart in "Bash," 2000

Stephanie Zimbalist

I shall be forever grateful to Joan for her love of dogs, which was reflected in her producing the LA premiere of Sylvia with me (and my precious Dippy) as the pooch.  Loving, wonderful, wise Joanie…down to her preference for dachshunds.

Jeffrey Richman

Joan Stein was a great customer.  If you’re “funny,” you’re constantly looking for someone who will give you the body-shaking, eye-watering, pants-peeing laugh you crave to fill the deep well of insecurity and need in your soul.  These people are precious and rare, and if you are lucky enough to discover one as I did many years ago with Joan, you are bonded forever.  I’ve never known anyone who was less stingy with a laugh, or who took more delight in the act of it.  I hear it now, and I know I always will.

Jason Alexander

One of the most positive spirits I have ever known. Joan believed when others couldn’t. She tried when others quit. She smiled when it was hardest. If heaven is filled with spirits like hers, then I hope I make it someday.

Stephen Eich

We lost one of the greats. She roamed in the reserved spaces. Humor, compassion, skill, dedication. Where the great ones run…

Linda Wallem

Joan gave me the most important job of my life…the job you get out of rehab. She sat me in her office and said, “I saw you Off-Broadway. I’m confused why you would want to work at the box office of the Canon Theater, but the job is yours.  And so is the theater, if you want to write something and see it on its feet.” It was such profound kindness at one of the lowest points in my life.  I will be forever grateful to her for that.  I am so blessed I knew Joan.

Christopher Durang

I just had a fun and funny visit with Joan when we were both in Miami for a theater conference. We hung out a lot, and I was reminded what a witty and funny and warm person she was.  I am grateful I spent that time so recently but gosh, I just had no idea she was ill.

John Augustine

I am so very sad today. Joan Stein has passed away. There is such a hole in my heart. There was nobody who made me laugh more than she. What an amazing theatrical spirit. And such a beautiful person. I just can’t believe she is gone. So many people loved her.

Sheldon Epps

Joan’s clear passion and love for our art form was abundantly clear in both her personal and professional relationships.  She had sharp theatrical intelligence, great affection for artists, and a genuine desire to support and nurture new work.  Over many years all of these qualities served the LA theater community incredibly well and helped to bring vitality and quality to many of our stages.

Amy Nederlander

Joan was a very special person – and you knew it from the moment she walked in the room just by the way she lit it up with her smile.

(l-r) Joan Stein, Suzi Dietz, Paul Reiser, Michael Cerveris (as Hedwig in blond wig), Rebecca DeMornay, Miriam Shorr (as Yitzhak) with Ben Affleck in front at "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" preview at the Henry Fonda Theater, 1999. Photo by Alex Berliner.

Stephen Trask

What a great lady and what an incredibly sad day. Joan produced Hedwig in LA with Suzi Dietz and never stopped being a friend. What a kick in the gut it is to lose her so soon. Joan, you will be missed.

Tony Abatemarco

When it came time to put a replacement into Joan’s hit production of Sylvia, she got right into my face — no one could do that so avidly — with the brightest shine in her eye. “You’re PERFECT!” (multiple roles) “It’ll be fun, and it’ll run for another year. Let’s do it!” Irresistible, that woman.  We closed in three weeks, but we had fun.  A thousand heavenly kisses, Joanie.

Bob Israel

I loved working with Joan and I am so saddened by her untimely passing. Joan was smart, fun, creative and the consummate professional. One of the fondest memories of my career is a production that I collaborated on with Joan for Sony Pictures in Vegas. She was a force of nature.

Jon Imparato

I was honored to co-produce Joan’s last LA theater production, Standing on Ceremony. Joan quickly became a dear friend and mentor and a joy to work with. We will all miss her smile, her enthusiasm, love for theater, great respect for talent, and most of all her illuminating spirit.

Frier McCollister, Allain Rochel, Rachel Harris, Jon Tenney, Kathy Najimy, John Michael Higgins, Joan Stein, Stuart Ross, Brian Shnipper, Camryn Manheim, Peri Gilpin, Richard Kind and Sara Adelman at "Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays" at Largo at the Coronet, 2011. Photo by Chuck Green.

Ken Werther

Of the many things I learned from Joan about the entertainment business, the one I take with me and share with others as often as possible, is this:  “If we’re not having any fun, I don’t want to be doing this.”Â Â People forget so easily.  What a profound legacy.

Bob Verini

Like everyone else, I am gobsmacked today, devastated. Joan was one of my longest-lasting friends and someone I never spent nearly enough time knowing and enjoying. A magnificent lady and gifted producer who never failed to exude caring and class, she was loyal always to her friends, her family, and the theatrical community to which she contributed so much. She was also always profoundly human — dedicated to the dignity of all. When we of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle honored her and Standing on Ceremony this past March, we couldn’t possibly have dreamed that this would be her last achievement. But I have a feeling that if she were asked, she would have said it was her proudest one.

Larry Aldrich

LA Stage is permanently dimmer without Joan’s star.

Jean Passanante

So shocked to hear about the death of Joan Stein. We didn’t always agree, (Reader, she fired me), but she was always straightforward and was especially kind to me when I started at NYTW and had no idea in hell what I was doing. And did I mention, she was hilarious?

Jeanne Kowalski

Rest in peace, Joan. You were a role model for so many women in theater, including myself in my first theater internship at the BTF. I will never forget your energy, sense of humor and intelligence.

Valarie Pettiford

RIP dear wonderful lady. I am so blessed that I knew you.

Susan Rose Lafer

When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure. Joan, you will be in my heart forever.

Murphy Cross

Thank you for all the laughs and great work, sweet and sassy Joan. I will never forget you in the red Cinderella dress at the Tonys, and I will never forget you.

Joan Stein, Gerry Schoenfeld and Suzi Dietz at the 1999 Tony Awards. Photo by Anita & Steve Shevett.

Saidah Arrika Ekulona

Joan had such an incredible light about her, she was enormously generous, had a huge smile, and gorgeous eyes that were always filled with bright light. A lover of theater and all of the arts, she was also an encouraging producer. I was blessed to know and work for her for five-plus years from development to performance of In Mother Words, where we shared life stories, and bonded as women. I treasure seeing her at almost every rehearsal, her laughter and hugging her after almost every show.

Angela Sidlow

Joan was a pillar in the theatrical community. To say she touched many lives is an understatement. If you worked with her, you learned something. If you were her friend, you were treated like family. If you were at a loss for words, she knew exactly what to say. I admired her strength and wisdom. I will cherish the memories I have of Joan. She left an indelible impression on all who knew her.

Philip Allen

I am just devastated by the loss of Joan. She believed in me when there was really no good reason to, and her support and kindness is a huge reason I still do what I do. She taught me that “producer” wasn’t a dirty word. She and Suzi and Jim were the shining light on the hill to me. I will miss her so much, and I will try to pass on the kindness and love that she showed me.

Jon Gottlieb

Joan always renewed my faith in the pleasant pursuit of of art and commerce. A great lady who always made me feel my contribution was both valued and unquestionably supported. This is the passing of a great collaborator. She will be missed.

Dani Alpert

I knew Joan back in her Berkshire Theatre Festival days when I was just an apprentice. I will never forget her kindness and generosity of knowledge and spirit. Anyone who is anyone has worked with Ms. Joan Stein. She will be missed.

Russell Lewis

A class act, a great friend and many, many fond memories in and out of the theater.

Cherry Vanilla

On our last hike around our Hollywood neighborhood, she was as vibrant, funny and determined as ever.  Our main topic of conversation was about the non-profit she was creating, a mentoring program for underprivileged kids with theatrical aspirations. We spent the hour joyously creating possible names for it.

“Quiggs” Quigley Lumme

Joan, you were the most incredible spirit I have ever had the pleasure to work with, laugh with and have the privilege to call a friend. You believed in me when I didn’t understand how to believe in myself. Your words and inspiration rang loudly in my brain when I decided to start my own business and your laughter rings loudly in the hearts of every single person you have met today. Thank you for all that you gave to the world, it is truly a better place because you were in it.

Joan Stein and husband Ted Weiant. Photo by Chuck Green.

Christina Conklin

Oh, dear Joanie. Thanks for a lifetime of wonderful, zany memories from our years at the BTF. You were and always will be, Fabulous, Dahling.

Jim Brochu

Oh Joanie, you were a cut above all of us — kind, talented, encouraging and you have left a hole in our hearts that will never be filled. My love goes out to Ted, her sweet man. May flights of angels….

Jeffrey Correa

I’m so sad to learn of Joan Stein’s passing today. Joan, you were an amazing woman, producer, ally, and friend. Thanks for all the laughs, the hard work, and the passion for the causes we both care so much about. You brought so much joy to people wherever you were, and we will miss you dearly.

Terry Tocantins

Joan Stein was a lot of things. Personally? My first boss in LA theater. Always a hoot. A kind champion of writers. If you needed a mentor in this city, look no further. Joan Stein, you will be missed, but I am glad that the world of theater will be feeling your influence for many years to come.

Jackie Green

Joan’s obsession with weight was legendary. We were having drinks with two friends who discovered that they’d both attended the famous Oxford & Cambridge rowing race in the UK.  One mentioned that he’d lost 50 pounds on the race.  Joan screamed, “You lost 50 pounds in a race?!” I said, “Money, Joan”¦ not weight.”

Stephen Sachs

My heart breaks today, learning of the passing of Joan Stein. A great, classy, smart, gutsy lady with a fabulous sense of humor. A pioneering theater producer in Los Angeles. Before launching the Fountain Theatre in 1990 with Deborah Lawlor, I worked with Joan and Suzi at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills for almost two years. Joan was terrific, a friend and mentor. One of the great ones.

David Engel

And choirs of Plaids sing thee to thy rest. We will never stop loving you, Joan!

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LA Stage Times

Joan Stein’s Brand of LA Theater — Forever Vanished? Tales of Two Tapes.

by Don Shirley | August 6, 2012

“The thrill of a commercial hit is like nothing else,” Joan Stein said. “It’s great to go backstage and tell the actors: ‘Set up your dressing room. We’re going to be here for a long time.’ ”

Stein, who died Friday, was speaking in 2004 from the Canon Theatre stage, participating in a discussion about that 382-seat theater’s imminent closing. As a Los Angeles Times reporter back then, I was moderating the conversation among a group of people who had a connection with the Canon — the theater that Stein and Susan Dietz ran as perhaps the last bastion of mid-size commercial theater in LA. (To read the resulting article from the Times archives, go here. For more personal and detailed memories of Stein, visit LA STAGE Times Tuesday).

Joan Stein

Commercial theater isn’t extinct in LA. The Nederlander Organization still runs the Pantages Theatre, booking commercial tours and an occasional sit-down production. LA’s biggest sit-down production ever (that is, a show that doesn’t plan on moving or closing at any specific date) is a few blocks west of the Pantages — Cirque du Soleil’s Iris.

On the other end of the scale, an occasional small production without non-profit backing breaks out of the pack and has a long run in a sub-100-seat theater — The Marvelous Wonderettes, for example.

But the LA equivalent of New York’s commercial Off-Broadway arena is barely visible, if not quite extinct. The mid-size companies I’ve discussed in the last month (here and here) are nonprofit organizations. An occasional for-profit show will pass through El Portal or perhaps some other mid-size venue, but they don’t “sit down” — as Forever Plaid and Love Letters did at the Canon during its commercial heyday.

Is this such a great loss?

Those who would answer “no” could cite the seemingly endless permutations of Love Letters at the Canon, in which the casting was carefully crafted for maximum short-term celebrity buzz, as an example of a creative dead end.

photo on left includes David Engel, Guy Stroman, Stan Chandler, and Larry Raben in Forever Plaid

On the other hand, Love Letters probably attracted more tourists than most LA stage productions, as people presumably could plan visits in order to coincide with the appearance of favorite celebrities. While this doesn’t push any of my personal theatergoing buttons, LA’s nonprofits should not scoff at the idea of attracting tourists. It would be great if a few more tourist dollars could support the more adventurous work created by the nonprofits.

Furthermore, the rotating casting of Love Letters was an exception to the norm at the Canon. Productions such as Forever Plaid created relatively stable and well-paying stage jobs in the heart of Beverly Hills that could last months or even years. Those who advocate the importance of creating spaces in which people can actually make a living on stage in LA should regret the loss of any such venue — whether it’s as big as the Dolby (the new name for the Kodak where Iris is playing) or as mid-size as the Canon.

The Canon Theatre

If I had to choose between an exclusively nonprofit midsize theater scene, which is almost what we have now, or an exclusively for-profit midsize theater scene, I would certainly choose the former. However, the best possible midsize arena would be one in which both nonprofits and for-profits thrived, with a cooperative relationship between them that would enable jobs in brief runs at the nonprofits to be converted into longer-lasting jobs at the for-profits.

Is the economy too dreary and the competition from online entertainment too pervasive nowadays for that vision to ever return?  Or is there a producer waiting in the wings who wants to play the part of a 21st-century Joan Stein in LA’s theatrical ecology?

A TALE OF TWO TAPES: Various permutations of Stephen Belber’s one-act Tape have been around LA for a while. I saw an earlier one, staged by Elissa Weinzimmer, at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June. But last week I finally saw Ian Forester’s site-specific version that originally opened at a Hollywood motel and then moved to the Los Feliz Hotel on Los Feliz Boulevard, just east of the 5 freeway.

The Los Feliz plays the role of a Motel 6, but its sign and its website officially dub it a “hotel.” My best guess about the rationale for this designation is that two of its 10 rooms are reached only by climbing up steps, so officially there are two floors. I usually think of “hotels” as having at least a few rooms upstairs, while many old-fashioned motels do not. I also think your average Motel 6 would have more than 10 rooms.

However, it’s close enough to what Belber envisioned — and because the action takes place entirely within one room, the appearance of the exterior serves simply to set the mood before the play begins, as the audience gathers on the sidewalk outside the ground-floor room that serves as the stage.

That audience is kept purposely tiny — around 10, although I counted 13 at the performance I saw. I was ushered to the one comfortable easy chair in the L-shaped room, right next to the main door where the two wings of the “L” intersect. I’m not sure if that was because I’m a critic or because I’m older than just about anyone else who was there that night.

John Pick and JB Waterman in Ian Forester’s site-specific “Tape,” in its original Hollywood venue

I probably should have insisted on perching in one of the less comfortable positions in the room in order to fully gauge what it’s like to see this Tape. Most of the people in the room were huddled on the two beds or around a little table next to the bathroom door and the back closet in the rear. I imagine that their sight lines were occasionally more obstructed than mine.

However, we were explicitly given permission to move at any time if we felt compelled to do so. And some of my fellow audience members moved more than once ““ either to get a better look at something happening on the other side of the room or to make way for the actors when they sat in various positions on the beds.

In a room this size, these actors surely have to be more flexible in their blocking than in most productions — even most site-specific productions. Apparently, if an audience member doesn’t budge from a position the actors would like to use, too bad — the actors have to improvise new blocking.

The spectators are handed little black masks, with holes over the eyes, and asked to wear them. In such a rigorously naturalistic environment, this is probably intended to establish at least one boundary between the actors and the audience. Would we have looked too much at our fellow audience members if we hadn’t been wearing masks? Maybe that was the motive for adding the masks, but I don’t know if that concern was justified.

The Los Feliz Hotel

The actors themselves held my attention very well. Co-producer John Pick plays the surly Vince, who welcomes a high school classmate (JB Waterman) from a decade ago, but Vince soon makes it clear that he hasn’t forgotten a potentially explosive grudge against his ex-friend. A third ex-classmate, now an assistant district attorney (Kate Brown), arrives about halfway through the play.

The fighting between the two men doesn’t seem quite as down and dirty as it did in the Fringe production at the ArtWorks annex in June. Perhaps this has something to do with the size of the motel room and the extreme proximity of the onlookers. I’m sure the actors don’t want to injure anyone in the audience, so it’s possible that their fight scenes are conducted with an underlying awareness of that possibility, leading to an overall interpretation that’s a tad more restrained than the one at the Fringe. It would be ironic if their physical environment actually prevents them from committing as unabashedly to the situation as they might have on a conventional stage, where they wouldn’t need to worry about tumbling into the onlookers.

Yet it’s not necessarily a demerit for Forester’s direction that his site-specific production assumes a quieter sense of irony about the situation, as opposed to the more heart-on-sleeve reactions in the production at the Fringe. The results are a little closer to the spirit of Pinter and farther from the spirit of LaBute. A well-choreographed fight can be exciting in larger theaters, but with the extreme intimacy inherent in Forester’s staging, subtlety is probably the smarter choice.

This Tape is billed as a Smith & Martin Company production in association with needtheater.

Tape, Los Feliz Hotel, 3101 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater. Resumes with two performances on Wednesday August 15. Then plays Tues-Wed, 8 pm and 10 pm, Aug 21-Sept 5.