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Stage Week

'At Wit's End': An Evening With Levant

February 05, 1989|JANICE ARKATOV

Pianist-wit Oscar Levant called his solo performances "concerts with comments." Writer Joel Kimmel re-creates the genre in a one-man show, "At Wit's End," opening Feb. 12 at the Coronet.

"The show is an evening with Oscar Levant," said Ronald A. Lachman, who is producing with Lawrence Kasha. "When I was growing up, Oscar's books were always around the house. His 'The Memoirs of an Amnesiac' was full of show-business anecdotes--and a little risque for a kid."

For those unfamiliar, "Oscar wrote books, appeared on radio, did movies ('Rhapsody in Blue,' 'An American in Paris')," Lachman said. "In the '50s, he had a TV show that he co-hosted with his wife, June. He'd have guests on, they'd talk--and Oscar would smoke. It was very casual, just Oscar and the piano. He also had a problem with prescription drugs that he talked about, which nobody did in the '50s. And I was always drawn to his sarcastic humor."

This show attempts to capture the flavor of a Levant performance. "But it's not real; it didn't actually take place," the producer said. "Joel Kimmel came up with the idea that the evening should occur in real time, then we evolved on that idea. So there's a lot of conversation and wonderful music: some Gershwin, some of Oscar's songs, others that fit the mood. But it's got two acts--a beginning, middle and end. It's a real play."

Stan Freeman ("Get Happy") plays Levant, and Charles Nelson Reilly directs.

SIGMUND TALKS: Another real-life figure gets the theatrical once-over in Lynn Roth's "Freud," a one-man show with Harold Gould as the father of psychoanalysis. The piece, which plays Friday through next Sunday, kicks off a benefit series at Theatre West; upcoming are Betty Garrett in "No Dogs or Actors Allowed," Feb. 24-26, and "Gogi Grant in Concert," March 10-12. ("Freud" also plays at Pepperdine University Feb. 24.)

"About six years ago, I realized I knew nothing about him," said Roth. "So I started reading things--and once I did, I knew I had to do something on him. But he's a hard character to dramatize, because so much of his work is internal. They did a Montgomery Clift movie about him, a play--'A Far Country'--by Henry Denker. I felt they were sorely lacking making us feel like we knew Freud: that combination of brilliant, charming, Jewish Viennese intellectual."

Roth, who has been touring the piece with Gould for the past year-plus, bases her assessment on lots of research: "I talked to everyone I could, read everything I could. But I got the most from his letters; he revealed himself there as much as he would. There were always a lot of veils over him--not like Henry James or Salvador Dali, who liked to reveal themselves. But wherever we go, you realize what a vitally important historical character he was. Everyone has been affected by this man."

TAPPED: Tap-dancer Harold Nicholas of the legendary Nicholas Brothers plays Mr. Magix in "My One and Only," opening Friday at the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera. . . . The Flying Karamozov Brothers touchdown at the Henry Fonda Theatre beginning Feb. 14.

CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: "Dutch Landscape," Jon Robin Baitz's story of an American family coming unraveled in modern-day South Africa, recently opened at the Mark Taper after three years of workshops and revisions. Gordon Davidson directs Penny Fuller, Stephen Joyce, Dakin Matthews, Raphael Sbarge, Todd Merrill, Olivia Virgil Harper and Philip Reeves.

Said The Times' Sylvie Drake: "(The play) doesn't seem to have an authentic bone in its body. Most of its characters feel like mouthpieces for solemn utterances locked in stilted situations where everyone is always trying to 'sit down and think.' Hardly the stuff of vibrant theater."

From the Daily News' Tom Jacobs: "There's the core of a deeply felt drama here, but it's buried beneath a load of uninteresting exposition, clunky dialogue and one-dimensional characters. 'Landscape' can be salvaged, but it's going to take a lot of rewriting."

In Daily Variety, Tim Gray said that "while the characters talk at length about these and other subjects, that's all it is: talk. In this static and repetitious play, the audience is told everything, shown very little and allowed to discover nothing."

Said Richard Stayton in the Herald Examiner: "Obviously it is Davidson's asexual direction that contributes to the final version's compromised, diluted and diplomatically safe condition. Apartheid isn't the issue here, just the excuse."

From the Orange County Register's Thomas O'Connor: "Much of the writing is a goopy stew of early Ibsen and bad O'Neill. The clanky, repetitive exposition is overrun with portentous talk of being 'so tired' or consumed with 'the true evil of this place' . . . all accompanied by long significant gazes off to the horizon."

Concluded Jay Reiner in The Hollywood Reporter: "We get a fairly tidy ending that fails to ring true to the deeper questions raised by the play. Still, there's a good and useful drama lurking in here somewhere, if only Baitz can find it."

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