Mabou Mines is making its first fully West Coast-created appearance at its new Western residence, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and, while that is definitely good news, the new memory play it has developed for the occasion, "It's a Man's World," falls a bit short--somewhere between ingenious and ingenuous.
That is not the highest of recommendations. Like so much mixed media performance (video plays a big role here), it is still mostly in search of itself. Yet it need not have looked farther than its own backyard to have come up with a compelling model. Mabou Mines' "Hajj," which had its unofficial premiere at CalArts a little more than two years ago, was also a memory play, but it made use of the mixed media approach with much more theatrical results.
Each piece stipulates its own demands, of course (creator Lee Breuer was careful to call "Hajj" a "performance poem"), but somewhere along the winding path of its technological evocations, "It's a Man's World" needed to find a way to involve our emotions. It didn't.
Instead, this combined creation of actor Greg Mehrten and director David Schweizer, feels like a splice between "Torch Song Trilogy" and a gay "American Gigolo." Schweizer calls it a collage in a program note (as long as performance art needs program notes to explain itself, it remains in trouble). I call it the short, unhappy life of a daytime soap star--a male Fanny Hill of the '70s--in 30 scenes more or less.
Commendable and problematic is its Los Angeles setting, which is physically translated by the very methods employed to convey it: video cameras on stage, video screens above it, delivering to us irreality once removed. The message of this medium is that only the image counts. Life in Hollywood is one long televised melodrama.
Good idea, but the residual impression derived here is much too superficial. And what is the exceptional Ruth Maleczech, a veteran Mabou Miner, doing in a play like this? She elevates the most cliched of small-time Hollywood agents with a juicy video performance, but it's a very New York concept of the stale Hollywood hack--and the vision of the Hollywood sign, glimpsed through the slats of a Venetian blind, only reinforces the callowness of this concept.
It also may well illustrate what is fundamentally wrong with "It's Man's World" (the ambiguity of the title should be lost on no one): The use of too many overused stereotypes to convey an even more tiresome message: that life is unfair, especially to gays, artistes and other minorities. Next. Please.
If this "Man's World" suffers from anything, it is, with one exception, overexplicitness. The life story of two-bit actor Joey Fontina (in a deliberately shrill performance by Mehrten) is old news, and, while the abstract approach provides some relief from predictability, the tale is still a cloying, poor-me tantrum.
The exception is that Joey, we gather, is dead, but the death is only alluded to, never explained. Was it accident? Illness? Suicide? We don't find out, which makes it impossible to relate to the intense emotionalism of his friends' reaction since we're left out in the cold.
Performances by the balance of the company are good to excellent and include the following recognizable standards: the dumb blond starlet who befriends Joey (Rhonda Aldrich); her equally blond, middle-aged leading man and sometime lover--also Joey's--who's been on soaps too long (Christopher Pennock); Joey's old buddy Red (Bill Raymond); Joey's black activist lover Roy (an imposing Roger Guenveur Smith); Joey's true paramour Peter (sensitive work by Evan MacKenzie) and the de rigueur wealthy, retired gay film director, Harry Atwater (William Glover), content to bask now in the bracing glow of younger men.
Stepping over equipment is not the most uncluttered way to go with all this, but the camera work by Paul Clay, Sharyn Cooper Blumenthal, John Cannaday and Ken Salley is impressive, while sets by Simon Doonan, lighting by Los Angeles Actors' Theatre veterans Barbara Ling and Greg Sullivan, superior costumes by Michael Kaplan, sound design by Jon Gottlieb and uncredited dirgelike music achieve an atmosphere.
Performances in Theatre 4 at 514 S. Spring St. run through Sept. 29; (213) 488-1122.