And Now, Just In Time, The Humbug Awards!

January 05, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

Already, 1986 is a disaster. You still haven't called the people you promised to call After the Holidays. You still haven't opened that envelope from MasterCard. You still can't remember the witty remark at the New Year's Eve party that has led to such coolness at home.

Well, forget it. Kick back, throw another elf on the fire and hark to our annual Humbug Awards, in which we memorialize some of the tackier transactions of the past theatrical year in the hope of preventing repetition of the same in the future. This has not happened yet, but we have only been at it for 15 years.

To review the rules: Humbugs are more often awarded to those who merchandise or who bang the drum for theater than to those who create theater, but everyone is eligible--even theater critics. (See below.) A generic humbug may be awarded to all the members of a certain class: producers who refer to plays as product , for example, or theater owners who refer to the top balcony as the mezzanine .

Other Humbugs go to specified individuals. Our first award this year goes to Ronald Reagan, who made his First Lady the honorary chairman of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts while once again asking Congress to cut the NEA's budget. With patrons like that, who needs enemies?

It was also the year that that the committee for President Reagan's inaugural advertised for NON-UNION (their caps) entertainers. And the year that the NEA's Arts Review had no problem publishing a fawning spread on Charles Z. Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency. It's all the same government, isn't it?

Humbugs to all involved. The same to Roger Stevens and Peter Sellars for calling their new Kennedy Center acting company the American National Theater--as if a national theater could be proclaimed into reality. On the strength of ANT's first few shows, it had a long way to go before it could even consider itself the best theater in Washington.

In a parallel show of hubris, the New York League of Theatres and Producers decided to start calling itself the American League of Theatres and Producers, on the grounds that its road shows tour across the country. On this logic, the New York Jets should be called the U.S. Jets--they play away from home too. Humbug!

A literary Humbug to Dotson Rader for an "affectionate" memoir of his old cruising-buddy Tennessee Williams that Williams would have thrown into the fire, along with Mr. Rader. The latter also informed a local columnist that Los Angeles was "shoddy and semi-literate." The very words for his book.

But not an inappropriate description for some of the shows that happened in Los Angeles this year. Two of the worst were at the new Tiffany Theatre: a woeful musical based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle and a dreadful revival of "Rain." We liked Art Metrano's performance in the former until learning that, as too often happens in Hollywood theater, he left the show immediately after the reviews came out.

Jack Klugman dropped out of the first show at the new Henry Fonda Theatre, "Twelve Angry Men," before the reviews came out. We don't doubt that he had a throat problem. But did his agent, Lillian Miceli, have to add: "He has a commitment to Canon Copier that he has to think about"? No wonder people have a hard time taking theater in Hollywood seriously.

"Semi-literate" is too kind a description for some of the publicity material sent out in the name of Los Angeles theaters this year. Your reporter could cope with most of the misspellings and bad grammar, not being above criticism in this department himself. But I'm still trying to crack this sentence from the Shakespeare Society of America: "Active as a writer and a director, his documentary on lonelessness in Los Angeles invisible cities will be aired on cable television during October."

And it's annoying to see a show billed as an American or a West Coast premiere by its publicist when this isn't the case. The Odyssey's "Jail Diary of Albie Sachs" wasn't new to the United States; it had been done at the Manhattan Theatre Club. "A Need for Brussels Sprouts"--one of the Murray Schisgal plays at the New Mayfair--wasn't new to Southern California; it had played at a dinner theater in Cathedral City. It's enough to make you stop believing handouts.

The year's most wondrous series of press releases came from the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. ACT had finished last season with a healthy "operating surplus" but was still going to have to do some cutting-back, including a new emphasis on two-person shows like "Mass Appeal" and " 'Night, Mother." This is something like a symphony orchestra announcing that it is going to concentrate on chamber music to save money. Is ACT in trouble or not, and why won't its artistic director, William Ball, talk to the press about it?

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