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Meet Mr. Plucky : To James Lapine, directing his new play 'Luck, Pluck & Virtue' means booting Horatio Alger smack dab into the '90s

August 01, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer.

When someone first suggested he meet with playwright James Lapine to talk collaboration, Stephen Sondheim quickly agreed. The esteemed composer had recently seen Lapine's play "Twelve Dreams," and had actually thought about calling Lapine himself.

That was 1982, and Lapine was eager to turn Nathanael West's novel "A Cool Million" into a musical. But when Sondheim reread it, he said recently, "to my horror I discovered it was 'Candide' in the Depression era, and (I'd) just done 'Candide' as a musical so recently."

So the two men shelved that project, kept on talking and wound up creating "Sunday in the Park With George," which later won them the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Lapine directed a remounting of the Sondheim/George Furth "Merrily We Roll Along" at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985, and in 1987, directed the world premiere of the Sondheim/Lapine "Into the Woods" at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

But Lapine never lost his interest in West's "Cool Million." Today, at the La Jolla Playhouse, Lapine's long-incubating idea will finally have its world premiere as the play "Luck, Pluck & Virtue."

"Inspired by" West's novel, "Luck, Pluck & Virtue" is truly a tale of wrong time, wrong place. Sweet Lester Price, who wants little more in life than to make his fortune, winds up losing his teeth, an eye, a thumb, a leg, his scalp and, invariably, his innocence.

"I think one of the things that appealed to me about it is just the visual possibilities," says Lapine, who usually directs his own shows and is doing so here. "I like the stage challenges of having somebody literally falling apart before your very eyes."

Keeping a tale like that bearable, not to mention zippy, does require some very complicated staging. In about two hours, 27 scenes introduce upward of 70 characters, most of them pretty unsavory folks, in locales throughout the country. Adrianne Lobel, who also designed the Lapine-directed film "Life With Mikey," points out that "Luck, Pluck" "never stops moving. It's like a voyage."

Some voyage. Price, brought to life by actor Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D."), has more misfortunes than poor Joe Bftsplk. West's novel is subtitled "The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin," and even Price's mother (played by Broadway veteran Marge Redmond) refers to her boy at one point as "Mr. Bits and Pieces."

It's pretty familiar Lapine terrain. This is, after all, the playwright who let all those awful things happen to Prince Charming, Cinderella, Rapunzel and company in "Into the Woods."

"Luck, Pluck" takes the black comedy of "Into the Woods" several steps further, becoming much more outrageous, observes La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff. Lapine, he says, "squeezes lemon juice into the cheeriest situation. There's always a slightly dark edge or undercurrent that gives his work edge, bite and depth. He's always happy to serve you up the dark side of the journey."

At rehearsals in La Jolla, for instance, as actors playing ferocious dogs, aged hookers and insensitive movie directors assault our hero, nobody laughs more than Lapine. "Think 'Guys and Dolls,' everybody," Lapine calls out to his cast one day. "With a twist."

Better to think Laurel and Hardy, actually. The show incorporates considerable physical comedy, and Lapine brought in Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Three Stooges films for the cast to watch. Allen Shawn's music, which accompanies much of the action, is reminiscent of the sort played with silent movies.

Lapine, 44, has updated and reshaped West's 1934 novel, adding his own humor and satiric targets. His classic American family lives in Ohio, not Vermont, and their classic American home is moved not into a Fifth Avenue store window but to a Hollywood sound stage. Lester goes off to make his fortune-- his cool million--on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour," loses an eye to fake fingernails rather than a flying stone, and is maimed by overzealous actors playing "Injuns."

It's quite a yarn either way, and Lapine seems almost to be adapting his own script as he goes. Frequent Lapine collaborator and composer William Finn--"Falsettos" and other shows-- says about half of each show they worked on together was written in rehearsal, and Lapine is similarly honing this show. "I tend to do a lot in rehearsal," says Lapine. "I like to rewrite when it's on its feet."

Lapine clearly relishes the rehearsal process, equating its pleasures to that of editing a film, when all the pieces get put together. He is everywhere you look--moving actors around cardboard trees, cuing the pianist, suggesting a new gesture or even turn of the head. He changes things easily, with a "yeah," a "better," sometimes just a glance.

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