As the Greeks put it: "Never say 'This is the worst.' " Just when it seemed there couldn't be a more perfect illustration of what's wrong with Los Angeles theater than "The Best Man," along came "Harry and Thelma in the Woods."
It might be argued that we are morbidly sensitive to what's wrong with Los Angeles theater at the moment. After "The Mahabharata" and Bergman's "Miss Julie" and the Wooster Group, everything else is bound to seem . . . less. We'll get our bearings back in a couple of weeks.
But should we? Is it healthy to accept mediocrity as the norm in Los Angeles theater, as if there were something in the drinking water that prevented our playwrights, directors and actors from living up to world standards? Rather than being morbid, our present window of dissatisfaction is a positive thing. We've seen the best and we want it for ourselves. Why not?
That would be the mood even without the festival. To quote from the Music Center's current fund-drive brochure, entitled "How Do You Measure a Great City?": "A great city must be a creative center, featuring those artistic activities which represent the highest level of human achievement. Consider for a moment Athens, Rome, Paris, London and New York. . . ."
Well, all right, consider. Consider how unlikely it is that anyone involved with the Ahmanson's current unrevival of "The Best Man" would care to have that show seen on Broadway, even if they could get the financing for it.
We will spare the reader another slam at Gore Vidal's "updated" script, the season's best proof that with plays too you can't go home again. But how about the production?
I once heard the show's director, Jose Ferrer, tell a convention of theater educators that the director was responsible for everything that happened to the audience from the minute it walked into the theater until the minute it went home. What happens when you walk into the Ahmanson is that you see a miserable little huddle of flats on a bare stage.
Under the lights, this develops into a respectable hotel-room set (by Douglas W. Schmidt). But the first impression is so wan that it almost seems an apology: Don't expect too much tonight, folks. And the acting backs it up.
Ferrer probably did tell his actors where to stand and when to go off. But he doesn't appear to have interested them in the play. From Mel Ferrer's ultra-stiff candidate to Buddy Ebsen's ultra-loose ex-President, everybody plods along at his own pace, politely waiting for the next line.
You're reminded of one of those all-star summer-theater packages--where the only real demand on the actor is to show up so that the audience can go home knowing that it has seen a real movie star. Take the money and walk.
At the same time, the company goes through its paces with a certain air of virtue, like people collecting for the Heart Assn. Fund. We are to understand that there is something mildly heroic about these name actors appearing on the stage in Hollywood, where they could be making so much more money doing a TV series.
Needless to say, real theater only happens when the people involved in it are going for broke--whether they're doing it on Broadway or on Ventura Boulevard. First-class theater can't be done with the left hand, while waiting for something better to come along. If the Ahmanson wants to be taken seriously, it has to start producing according to its best knowledge of what theater can be, rather than according to its most hopeful estimate of what a local audience will accept.
Otherwise, let it become a booking house for Broadway musicals, which fit the configuration of the place better anyway. We have enough vanity theater in Los Angeles already. They have no place at the Music Center.
"The Best Man" is Los Angeles large theater at its worst. "Harry and Thelma" is Los Angeles small theater at its worst (in this case, the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica).
This show actually is talking about going to Broadway. For its producers we have one word: Don't. You will get murdered.
The script, by Stan Lachow, could be described as a situation comedy, except that it has hardly any situation and no comedy at all. In Act I, Harry (Bill Macy) leaves Thelma (Doris Roberts) after 25 years of marriage, and in Act II, Harry comes back to Thelma--both times, in the woods. That's the plot.
Why does Harry leave Thelma? Because he's met a girl named Choo-Choo who can crinkle her eyes. Why does he come back to Thelma? Because it turns out that Choo-Choo was squinting.
A larger reason is that Thelma seems to fulfill Harry's need to be abused. Clear away the gags, and this is as grim a marriage as you would find in a Samuel Beckett play. Harry is (and we have no reason to disagree with Thelma on the point) "a loser." Nothing works for him any more; his writing has gone to pot; his sex life is a misery; life makes him nauseous.