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Secrets of the Play That Refuses to Close

February 12, 1989|BARBARA ISENBERG

Welcome back to "Tamara," the theatrical experience that won't die.

Since May 21, 1984, about 200,000 people have followed the "living movie" up and down and through three floors of bedrooms, hallways, balconies and stairways at Il Vittoriale, a transformed American Legion post on Highland Avenue in Hollywood.

They've kept coming, sometimes even waving petitions when the show's producers threatened to close Il Vittoriale's doors. In January, producers were counting down the weeks before closing. Then came word last week--with just two weeks to go--that once again "Tamara" producers were resuscitating it.

The theatrical experience that's been compared to both "Dynasty" and Disneyland is back "by popular demand." Whose demand? What fuels a $550,000 production about politics and debauchery in '20s Fascist Italy?

The Los Angeles theatergoing public apparently relishes the chance to be right there-- on the bed, behind the divan or even in the men's room--to visit and watch a house full of aristocrats and servants mate, murder and masticate. For nearly five years, eight times a week, ticket buyers have been paying as much as $80 apiece to spend an afternoon or evening with mysterious chauffeur Mario Pagnutti and sexy maid Emilia Pavese as they serve such historical figures as Italian poet and ladies' man Gabriele d'Annunzio and Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka.

He wasn't being misleading with all those "last six weeks" ads, swears Moses Znaimer, the 46-year-old Canadian broadcaster who first produced the show here. Ticket sales really were down. "We posted the six weeks and (sales) immediately went up, which means people appreciate being reminded. I don't take it (that we were being) manipulative. It's just that if you're permanent, nobody feels urgent about it."

He was apparently right. The newly installed Tamara Hotline is promising tickets for three more months. Ticket sales are back on track. "Tamara" fans still won't have to go all the way to New York--where they'd pay as much as $135 apiece--to see their favorite show in its second and even more expensive U.S. incarnation.

What with his TV station, music video service and other businesses, Znaimer may no longer have the time to pop in from Toronto to shepherd the Los Angeles production. But even he doesn't want it to expire. So he was in town recently shopping it around to potential licensees, hoping to find someone who would be as much of an entrepreneur at this point as he was back in 1981 when he saw the show at the first and only Toronto International Theater Festival.

"The issue here--aside from the amusement of the moment--is not whether 'Tamara' runs an extra two months or not," says Znaimer. "The issue is whether I can establish this as a valid new entertainment form. Not a theater piece with a gimmick but a new entertainment form. And by extension, whether I can establish (the Legion post) as a venue where you go to do that kind of thing."

At "Tamara," written by Canadian playwright John Krizanc, you truly do pay your money and take your choice. Once you're inside Il Vittoriale, the Italian villa where Mussolini reportedly kept D'Annunzio under house arrest, things are happening in nearly every room. There, you can follow any one of the 10 characters, each of whom has a separate script, for as long as you want. If you're bored by all the political conversation upstairs, for instance, rush down to the maid's room and watch some fairly graphic nuzzling with the guard.

Theatergoers line up for passports issued in lieu of tickets, then hand them over to a snarling Fascist policeman a few yards away. As the villa's "residents" mingle with the crowd in the opulent living room, a ballerina pirouettes around the balcony, the piano music becomes more ominous and functionaries appear to explain the rules of the house. Among those rules: Do not speak or wander around on your own or block a doorway.

Nearly everybody sees a different show, which is one reason the management offers discounts on repeat visits (see accompanying story). That way visitors won't have to miss such jewels as D'Annunzio's opening scene in his bedroom. Just after telling Mussolini by phone that "if I want to speak to someone in authority, Benito, I look in the mirror," our hero looks up to see a lady in white enter the room, a red rose in one hand, a gun in the other!

The concrete stairs are tough on the legs, and theatergoers are advised to wear comfortable shoes. Actor John DeMita, who plays the chauffeur, says the valet has to climb the most flights of stairs each performance--36--to his and the maid's 27 flights apiece. "It's just a very strenuous show," says Lorelle Brina, who plays her last performance as the maid tonight after more than a year in the role. "You can't do it for a very long time."

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