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Commentary : Another Non-opening, Another No-show

November 21, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Old newspaper joke: Drama critic comes into the office at midnight. "No review tonight. The leading lady fell off the stage and broke her leg."

Dinah Manoff didn't fall off the stage, but she did get a TV show--"Murder, She Wrote"--and that's why Donald Freed's two-character play, "Alfred and Victoria," didn't open at the Los Angeles Theatre Center Wednesday night, as scheduled.

As re -scheduled. Freed's play was supposed to open at the LATC Oct. 30. But Manoff's co-star, at the time, Philip Baker Hall, got a Spielberg film.

A performance of "Alfred and Victoria" was given at LATC Wednesday night, starring Manoff's understudy, Theresa Karanik, and the show's director, Gerald Hiken. But it was called a preview. (The show has now been previewing for three weeks.) The opening will now be Saturday night--if Manoff isn't needed on the set at Universal.

So it goes in the Los Angeles theater, and it's no wonder that people in the outside world have a hard time taking our theater seriously. Certainly film-TV people don't, and they call the shots in this town. It's fine to do a play--if you're not working. But Spielberg and "Murder, She Wrote" is the real world .

Bob O'Neill, "Murder's" producer, sounds like a pleasant man on the phone.

He explains that "Murder" just plain got behind schedule recently, what with having to shoot a double episode in Hawaii with "Magnum, P.I," and last week's rain and generator problems.

The pipeline got jammed, and that's why Manoff and Sean Cassidy had to spend a few more nights on the sound stage than had been figured when Manoff agreed to do the show in October. One of those nights, unfortunately, was Manoff's opening at LATC.

"We're not insensitive to Dinah's plight," O'Neill said. "We do our doggondest to accommodate performers when they have conflicts. But we can't just shut a company down. It would affect the whole production cycle. If you get behind on this show, you get behind on the next one. The costs would be astronomical."

Ah, the bottom line. Each "Murder, She Wrote" episode costs about $1 million to shoot. Manoff is being paid substantially more for her work in that episode than she's getting in the theater. Along with that goes a commitment to be on the set when needed. "When you sign to do any episodic television, the production company, in effect, owns you," O'Neill said.

That's frank. O'Neill, a gentleman, doesn't want to say how much he's paying Manoff, but $20,000 or so might be a good guess. She's making about $100 a week at LATC, under an Equity letter-of-agreement setup. Who can blame her for going where the money is?

LATC artistic director Bill Bushnell doesn't blame her. He does blame her agent for negotiating her TV contract "without being real clear and real firm about her commitment to us. We agreed that Dinah could be off one night, Nov. 24. Suddenly it comes down to all sorts of spillovers and night-shoots.

"Bob O'Neill has tried to be real nice about it, but he hasn't a sense of what's involved here. The Industry at this point does not have any serious respect for the theater. It's the third person in the game."

Manoff's agent, Diane Roberts, points out that "Alfred and Victoria's" opening night would be ancient history by now if LATC hadn't sprung Manoff's co-star, Philip Baker Hall, in October for his shot at The Industry.

"At the time we negotiated the contract (mid-October), there was in no way a conflict with the play's schedule. Dinah's been rehearsing and performing it for three months now--first with Philip, then with Philip's understudy, now with Gerald Hiken. There's been no disregard of theater here."

Manoff isn't so sure that applies to the "Murder" staff. "I've done double jobs in New York. When you tell them you've got a curtain there, they know that that means you're off the set at 5:30. That's not understood in this town. They think of theater as, basically, an extension of high-school theater."

True, I'm afraid. Los Angeles could provide an ideal mix for the actor. Theaters like LATC supply the chance to do the serious work that extends the actor, and TV shows like "Murder, She Wrote" give her the chance, as Manoff says, "to make house payments."

But it won't happen until The Industry reminds itself that it owes theater something as the source of some of its best talent. (Wednesday's "Magnum, P.I." featured Angela Lansbury, John McMartin, Dorothy Loudon and Jessica Walter.)

It won't happen until The Industry realizes that it has a responsibility to what happens to theater in this town--that it can kick it around, hardly even noticing the damage, or it can give it a hand.

It won't happen until The Industry starts treating theaters like LATC and the Taper with the respect it would give the Broadway theater.

Bob O'Neill talks about the "unwritten laws" of his business. I suggest that he and other Industry leaders, agents included, add another one: You don't leave a live audience waiting downtown.

The bottom line here isn't money. It's class.

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