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The Year That The Tough Got Going

December 29, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

A good play has a spine: an organizing idea that makes its scenes all run in the same direction. A theater year tends to be less coherent, but 1985 might be defined as the year Los Angeles theater realized that if it was going to make it, it would have to make on its own.

In 1985, the local theater community was still nursing a hangover from the previous summer's Olympic Arts Festival. The festival was at once praised for having brought so many exciting foreign companies to town, and resented for having raised audience expectations that couldn't possibly be met on a daily basis. Surely that was why the gate for local shows had been off ever since the Olympics.

Or was it the onset of the home VCR? Whatever the reason, by springtime our theaters had grown tired of hearing themselves complain and had come to realize that a Higher Power wasn't listening. Certainly not in Washington, where President Reagan lauded the National Endowment for the Arts on its 20th anniversary and once again tried to cut its budget.

So some theaters threw in the towel. For the first time in memory, the number of Equity Waiver productions actually fell off in 1985 (from 549 to 495, according to Drama-Logue, which monitors Waiver even more carefully than The Times does). Other theaters continued to bumble along on pure narcissism--a common synthetic fuel in Los Angeles. And some theaters rose to the challenge. If L.A. wanted world-class theater, by God, they'd give it world-class theater.

The theater that went out on the biggest limb was Bill Bushnell's Los Angeles Theatre Center. In September it opened a $17-million four-stage complex on Spring Street, a glorious hive patterned after Joe Papp's Public Theatre in New York--and as little likely to be able to support itself on box-office returns alone.

LATC's first shows were feisty and well produced, whether you agreed with them or not. They also proved that audiences weren't afraid to come downtown at night. In fact, the theater had an unexpected hit in Charles Marowitz's mildly ironic revival of "The Petrified Forest." Actors and writers seemed to like the smell of the place as well. But will Bushnell be able to attract the institutional support that a world-class theater organization needs? He has about a year to find out.

The new LATC gave the city a needed alternative to the Music Center's theater complex. We've also long needed a couple of smaller Broadway-style proscenium houses for spoken drama, and we got them as well. The Henry Fonda Theatre was the old Pix Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, the James A. Doolittle Theatre the old Huntington Hartford Theatre. The first was taken over by the Nederlander Organization, the second was rescued by a triumvirate--UCLA, the Taper and the Ahmanson.

You didn't have to admire the decor of either house to enjoy the intimacy of each. How pleasant to sit in a theater where the actors didn't look like miniature action-figures from the balcony, and didn't have to shout! And each house had a world-class hit at the end of '85--David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" at the Fonda and Lee Breuer's and Bob Telson's "The Gospel at Colonus" at the Doolittle (which did involve some shouting).

"Glengarry Glen Ross" came to us after winning every theater prize going--Tonys, a Pulitzer, etc. It's certainly one hell of a play, and Joe Mantegna gives a hell of a performance as a guy who could sell the air rights to the Grand Canyon.

But my pick for the play of the year was Craig Lucas' "Blue Window," a quiet divertimento built around a Sunday-evening dinner party in New York.

Not much happened in this play, but what did happen was choice, and Norman Rene's actors understated their characters beautifully. "Blue Window" topped a consistently interesting season for Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory, a company Los Angeles tends to underestimate. And its transfer to the New Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica seems to be catching on, as opposed to the ignorant way we spurned South Coast's production of "Top Girls" at the Westwood. We are learning.

The Taper--still our flagship theater, after all--kept making voyages in 1985, not all of them successful. Its fifth try at a repertory miniseason ("Measure for Measure" and Schnitzler's "Undiscovered Country") didn't advance the cause very far--there's need for rethinking here. But its monthlong New Theatre for Now festival generated some real in-house excitement, as well as at least two promising plays--John Steppling's dark "The Dream Coast" and Doris Baizley's deceptively light "Mrs. California."

The most enterprising theater of the year was the La Jolla Playhouse, chaired by Des McAnuff. It convinced Stephen Sondheim to try "Merrily We Roll Along" again (to some improvement) and got Michael Weller to contribute a literate, funny new play of "Big Chill" weight, "Ghost on Fire."

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