Los Angeles theater was looking a little glum as the year ended. The Shubert was dark, looking for a successor to "Cats." The Nederlander houses hadn't had a hit since "La Cage aux Folles." The Ahmanson's Robert Fryer announced that he was leaving in 1988. The Taper had had to duck out of its partnership running the Doolittle with UCLA.
The Los Angeles Theatre Center was keeping its head above water, but it was a battle. Peg Yorkin decided she had lost enough money with the L.A. Public Theater and went to TV. Susan Dietz dissolved the L.A. Stage Company and went to the Pasadena Playhouse. Equity Waiver theater activity held steady at around 450 (!) shows, but the union was increasingly unhappy to see all those actors working for carfare, or less.
"The Iceman Cometh" with Jason Robards had been terrific at the Doolittle--and had lost $280,000. "Nicholas Nickleby" with the Royal Shakespeare Company had been the theater experience of a lifetime at the Ahmanson--and had lost $700,000. What did it say about theater in Los Angeles when even the good shows couldn't make money?
Nothing so terrible. In my view, 1986 was a productive year for L.A. theater, both in terms of strong performances and lessons learned. Consider:
1--What happens at the Shubert Theatre and the Nederlander houses has something to do with the Los Angeles theater \o7 market\f7 , but nothing to do with the Los Angeles \o7 theater\f7 . These are road houses committed to Broadway "product," which either will or will not be there, according to what happened in New York a season or two back. Nobody's gloating to see these houses dark. But it does remind us why we need our own theaters, independent of the Broadway system.
2--Robert Fryer fought the good fight at the Ahmanson, but it remains a cold and distant house, particularly for straight plays. Stars aren't anxious to play there, and Fryer hasn't had an easy time finding them--which may explain why the subscription list is falling. A change in leadership (Martin Manulis will replace Fryer after an interim year) is a good time to rethink the house, including its funereal color scheme.
3--If Los Angeles theater is shrinking, that's not necessarily a tragedy. Four or five hundred Waiver shows a year isn't a sign of health; it's a sign of how desperate local actors are to be seen. Our major theaters also suffer from a surplus of product. One admires a producer like Joe Stern, who only presents a couple of shows a year at the Matrix (his prize this year was "The Common Pursuit") but who thinks them out thoroughly. In contrast, the new Los Angeles Theatre Center offered 18 shows last year. Good theater can't be cranked out on that schedule.
4--"The Iceman Cometh" and "Nicholas Nickleby" lost money on Broadway, too. Art demands effort from its audience, and it often does lose money. What's important is that more than 25,000 people, many of them young people, experienced a great performance of an O'Neill play at the Doolittle (93% of capacity) and more than 45,000 took a gorgeous eight-hour journey with Charles Dickens at the Ahmanson (55% of capacity). Any year that brings our city two shows of this caliber is a banner year. Rather than commiserating with the guarantors of these productions as if they had made a bad bet (they included Center Theatre Group, the Shubert Organization, UCLA, Aaron Spelling and Robert Ahmanson), we ought to be toasting them with champagne for having made a magnificent gift to the city--the theatrical equivalent of two blockbuster museum shows.
"Nicholas" and "Iceman" were the choicest imports of the season, following two back-to-back events this fall at the Doolittle: Robert Wilson's "The Knee Plays" and the American Repertory Theatre of Boston in Gozzi's "The King Stag" and Don DeLilo's "The Day Room." After that, the Doolittle had the incomparable Lily Tomlin in "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." A deserved run of good luck for a theater that's not cold and distant.
The Mark Taper Forum brought in " 'night, Mother," with Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak more relaxed than they'd been on Broadway, and "Asinamali" from South Africa, with its five guys playing as one. But the Taper seemed to be trying for big ensemble shows this year. The best, for my money (a lot of people hated it), was JoAnne Akalaitis' "Green Card," free-associating yesterday's and today's American immigrants in her usual critical fashion. With so much oil being poured as the nation celebrated the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday, it was good to have some vinegar.
The Taper Rep did "Hedda Gabler" and Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the Doolittle, with Linda Purl's performance in the latter definitely the real thing. Ron Hutchinson's "Rat in the Skull" also showed a fine, hard edge at Taper, Too. David Marshall Grant was a fanatical young Irish terrorist, Charles Hallahan an equally fanatical inquisitor, and one saw Hutchinson's despair at so much zeal.