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Not a Banner Year--but Not Bad

December 27, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

As usual, Los Angeles saw at least 400 shows last year that had some claim to being considered professional. That is, some 400 shows were produced. It's not known how many people actually saw them.

For example, I recently attended a late-night performance of a show called "Sinatra" at the Las Palmas Theatre. It was a one-man show with a one-man audience: me. Did this mean that the bottom had dropped out of L.A. theater or that the word had gone out on "Sinatra"?

Probably the latter. It wasn't a banner year at the box office, but most houses had at least one hit: "Mail" at the Pasadena Playhouse, "Burn This" and "Roza" at the Taper, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, "Master Class" at the Odyssey, "Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will)" at Theatre/Theater, "Savage in Limbo" and "Oct. 22, 4004 B.C. Saturday" at the Cast, "Sand Mountain" at the Back Alley, "Bent" at the Coast Playhouse, "Almost Perfect" at the Santa Monica Playhouse, "The Baron in the Trees" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, "Checkmates" at the Westwood (it started at Inner City), and so on.

The Ahmanson had a miserable year at the box office, and it deserved to have one with such timid revivals as "Light Up the Sky" and "The Best Man." The Shuberts showed better taste in keeping their house in Century City dark all year, pending a show they could really get behind. That approach wouldn't do at the Music Center, of course--not with another building about to go up. But it was clear that the Ahmanson had become a theater that didn't know what it was for, or whom it was for.

The Mark Taper Forum gave itself a splendid weeklong 20th anniversary party in April and offered two splendid Joe Orton revivals, "Loot" and "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" in July. Otherwise it wasn't a headline-making year. The Ahmanson's financial problems have made its junior partner leery about taking risks. The Taper does know what it's for: original work. It just can't afford to do it.

(Suggestion: The Taper and the Ahmanson should either cut the cord, so that the big ship doesn't drag the little one to the bottom, or they should unite under one artistic director, preferably the person who has led the Taper and watched the Ahmanson from the inside for the last 20 years: Gordon Davidson. It's hard to believe the Center Theatre Group board has never considered this. Maybe they're afraid Davidson would say yes.)

Money isn't everything, of course. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is even closer to the edge than Center Theatre Group. Yet under Bill Bushnell's leadership, the work plunges on--if not always ahead.

LATC had its dogs in '87, particularly in the last quarter. But it gave us the most literate new play of the year, Robin Lee Baitz's "The Film Society," and also the play with the widest social reverberations, Vladimir Gubaryev's "Sarcophagus."

This last did make the headlines, the same kind that Mikhail Gorbachev was making. As a message play, "Sarcophagus" was cut and dried. As a protest play from a hitherto muffled theater, it was extraordinary.

LATC also continued an unrewarding relationship with the Norwegian director Stein Winge. A new partnership with the English actor-director Simon Callow was much more promising. Callow staged an exemplary production of Milos Kundera's "Jacques and His Master," spoken with English zest but in three or four different American accents. Callow, not Winge, should have staged LATC's "King Lear."

The handsomest classical revival of the year, by all accounts, was South Coast Repertory's "Misalliance." My favorite SCR show in '87 was its very first one, "Three Postcards," in which playwright Craig Lucas and composer Craig Carnelia eavesdropped on three women friends having dinner in a drop-dead restaurant. The New York critics found this show superficial. They were superficial.

A musical that should have done better was "She Loves Me," a charming import from Santa Barbara at the Ahmanson that was a victim of the summer doldrums. The failure of "Leave It To Jane" and "The Boys From Syracuse" at the Doolittle Theatre could be similarly ascribed, but the fault was in the productions themselves, especially "The Boys From Syracuse." Between them, these shows were said to have cost $1 million. Money isn't everything.

Labor Day brought the Los Angeles Arts Festival--Le Cirque du Soleil, "The Mahabharata," Ingmar Bergman's "Miss Julie," the Wooster Group, "Bopha" from South Africa and much more. It was as rich a theatrical feast as the Olympic Arts Festival had been in '84, and again there was indigestion. Local theater people complained that it hurt their gate all the way to the Christmas holidays.

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