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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.

There were readings of "Luck, Pluck" in New York and at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. But it was McAnuff who "immediately jumped on it." Within a few weeks of attending the small Taper reading in 1992, McAnuff made a commitment to produce the show this season.

"It sort of stuck in my brain as something I wanted to do," Lapine says of this play. "There's nothing new about it, which is maybe why it appealed to me, because it is the kind of story that speaks to the age. It's a Horatio Alger tale gone awry."

It's also a good vehicle to explore humor and what makes something funny. His dramatic and musical work both showcase Lapine's wit, but the playwright's cerebral demeanor often seems incongruous with his remarks. He tosses off stuff like a description of his play as your basic story "about a young innocent who gets dismembered" with deadpan delivery, only occasionally rolling his eyes or offering a smile.

"One of the things that interested me about this story is what part of us laughs at other people's misfortunes," Lapine says. "It's universal, but if you stop to think about it, it's quite sick. It so fascinates me how we always laugh when somebody falls on a banana peel, how comedy and injury are often so interwoven. I've always been a sucker for that.

"On one hand, on the bright side, you could say that we laugh as a response to our sense of vulnerability. The other side is that it responds to our sense of superiority in seeing somebody else have a misfortune. It makes us feel somehow lucky or better or above the misfortune."

Not that he wants to come across as a man on a mission, he says several different ways. He wants to have fun at what he does, and one aspect of the fun is having it actually say something.

Casual conversation in the car and over meals is often serious, and he does concede he tries "to make everything I do have something to say. I'm a hippie child of the '60s. What drives me crazy about mass media entertainment is that it's so often devoid of any ideas."

Not Lapine's shows. "If you look at the musicals he's done--'Falsettos,' 'Into the Woods,' 'Sunday in the Park'--how would you characterize them?" asks actor Chip Zien, a veteran of "Into the Woods" and "Falsettos." "There's not a lot of dancing in a Lapine musical."

Both "Woods" and "Sunday" were multilayered despite the seeming familiarity of their origins--fairy tales and George Seurat's painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," respectively. "Falsettos" is very funny but remains the tale of a broken family, unconventional matings and the ravages of AIDS.

Composer Finn says he called on Lapine to direct "March of the Falsettos," a predecessor to "Falsettos," because Lapine's play "Table Settings" moved like a musical. And all of Lapine's shows, whether musicals or plays, also smack of his training and interests in the visual arts.

Lapine "visualizes while he writes," says collaborator Sondheim, referring to the playwright's "visual gift." And McAnuff says Lapine's shows often make him feel he's "watching this exquisitely moving graphic."

McAnuff offers the example of the way furniture slides on and off, down and around the stage in "Falsettos," a device that seems choreographed as much as directed. "James is always interested in the picture," says Zien. "If you look at our show ('Falsettos,' which closed on Broadway June 27) from the balcony, it's almost like a series of pictures. He's very concerned people on either side match."

"Luck, Pluck" is also a very visual show, from Lobel's upbeat, cheery sets to what Lapine pegs as the indirect influence of painter Jasper Johns and others. Johns' foundation was a backer of "Photograph," says Lapine, although they hadn't yet met, and Lapine says the look of "Luck, Pluck" was "in a very abstract way inspired by Johns' flag imagery and cross-hatched painting technique as well as by the work of artists Robert Indiana and Frank Stella."

In fact, Lapine continues, the set is "a crazy quilt influenced by those American pop artists in combination with American folk painting. The rolling painted backdrop is 450 feet long and often suggests a deconstructed flag that never stops moving."

The director "really does have a vision and point of view of what something should look like and how it should be," says Bernadette Peters, who worked with Lapine in "Sunday," "Into the Woods" and the film "Impromptu." "He never throws the baby out with the bathwater. Unlike others who say, 'Let's try this ,' and forget their objective, he never loses the objective."

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