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.
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 productions — Jason 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.
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.
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.
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. www.thewallis.org. 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. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 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.”
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.
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.
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. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 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. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400.