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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.

He's running rehearsals in sandals, baggy Bermuda shorts and a white "Sunday in the Park With George" T-shirt, and his dress reflects what actor Harris calls the show's "relaxed atmosphere." When Lapine's 7-year-old daughter, Phoebe, declines playing with her doll somewhere besides the prop area one day, for instance, he first hisses, "Take direction," then simply waits patiently until she moves.

"He never flies off the handle," says actor George Coe, who first worked with Lapine in "Into the Woods" at the Old Globe, "or if he does, we don't see it. I've never seen him get crazy once."

It's no coincidence, Lapine admits, that, like his hero, he also grew up in a small town in Ohio but didn't stay there long. His family moved to Connecticut, he went on to study history at Franklin and Marshall College, then headed west to California Institute of the Arts. CalArts, where he did graduate work in photography and design, "was inspirational," he says today. "It fosters a kind of open-minded approach. You don't have to be limited to one thing or another."

Lapine certainly hasn't been. He first made his living in New York, for instance, as both photographer and waiter. He didn't much like shooting souffles for magazines, he says, but he loved being a waiter. "It's good background for writing, because you're such a neutral observer. If you're like me and nosy, you're always eavesdropping on other people's conversations. A photographer is always framing images. So by the time you put the two together, it's not such a big leap to what I do now."

Actually, it was a big leap. Lapine sought to emulate art photographer Lee Friedlander, perhaps move on to directing films like Stanley Kubrick or Gordon Parks. He had no interest in theater aside from such "avant-garde stuff" as Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk. When theater opportunities first came up, he says, he saw them as a way to start working with actors.

He was a graphic designer in New York, then at Yale Drama School in New Haven, Conn., later teaching graphic design at Yale as well. His multimedia staging of Gertrude Stein's three-page poem "Photograph," a campus project at Yale, was essentially "a visual pageant," Lapine says today.

"Photograph" made it to New York, where it fared well with critics and went on to win an Obie in the late '70s. His play "Table Settings" was written at both the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony and Albee Foundation colony, and Lapine was still teaching graphic design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology the day it opened Off-Broadway.

"Table Settings" won the George Oppenheimer Playwriting Award in 1980, and few of his theatrical involvements haven't won prizes. Besides the Obie for "Photograph" and the Pulitzer with Sondheim for "Sunday in the Park," he has taken home Tony Awards--for the book to "Falsettos" with William Finn and for the book to "Into the Woods."

Many of those musicals have wound up on Broadway, but nearly all got there by way of nonprofit theaters, often in California. "Sunday" and "Into the Woods" both began at New York's Playwrights Horizons, for instance, and "Woods" had its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe.

What does he like about regional theater? "That it's not in New York. I like getting out of New York and not having the pressure of a New York opening, New York critics and your friends coming all the time. It's liberating to be away from the mix."

Few places could be farther away from the mix than sunny, peaceful La Jolla. Lapine calls La Jolla "a nice place to work" as well as a great place for a New Yorker to be in the summer. Lapine and McAnuff talked over the years about other projects, including a postponed Sondheim/Lapine musical originally announced for this year's La Jolla Playhouse season.

"He's one of those directors who has a standing offer at the Playhouse," says McAnuff. "When we are of use to him, we want to attempt to be just that, depending on the project and if we have the resources to support it."

It was at the Playhouse, for instance, in 1985, that Lapine directed a rewrite of "Merrily We Roll Along," a show that ran only briefly on Broadway. Asked if the redo has any Broadway future, he is pessimistic. "That's my great regret in life," he says. "I really played the cards badly on that.

"After we opened it in La Jolla, I was sort of in my perfectionist mode and I just felt it wasn't totally successful. Of course, now, in retrospect, I realize so few things are ever quite right. I should have just done it and moved on, instead of thinking that one day I would do it again."

Maybe that's why he was so determined to get "Luck, Pluck" up now. Never mind that he also was busy with such other projects as "Falsettos"--which was produced at the Old Globe earlier this year--and directing "Life With Mikey," a film he was still doing post-production work on in May. He'd been working on "Luck, Pluck" on and off the past few years, and the rights would soon expire.

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