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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.

Directing work he's collaborated on helps Lapine keep control, too. But he pays a price, particularly on a play where he doesn't have collaborators on the writing. Lapine calls the dual role "kind of lonely and very exhausting. You have to be very clear whether the problem is the writing or the direction. You can get very confused as to whether something's not working because it isn't directed properly or because the writing isn't there. It's easier to direct someone else's stuff."

Lapine has thus far directed only films that others have written. The first film he directed, "Impromptu," came about primarily for two reasons, he says. First, "I just wanted to do something different." And second, "my wife (screenwriter Sarah Kernochan) wrote it and it was sort of a family project."

He learned filmmaking on the job much as he learned theater, taking on "Impromptu" after just a week at the Sundance Institute and some experience with videos of his theater work. The 1991 film, a comic period piece about Frederic Chopin, George Sand, Franz Liszt and their crowd, was filmed in France, starred Judy Davis, Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Emma Thompson, and got some nice notices.

Then, Lapine was working with producer Scott Rudin on a project that fell through, and Rudin sent over Marc Lawrence's script for "Life With Mikey." "It amused me when I read it, and I really wanted to do another movie," says Lapine. "I wanted to do something kind of commercial, a studio movie, and just have that experience."

The resulting Touchstone film, released in June, stars Michael J. Fox and is dotted with cameos by the growing Lapine stage ensemble. Zien says the credits for the film are a who's who of anyone who ever worked with Lapine, and it sure seems that way. Lapine guesses there are 30 of his stage pals in that film, including regular Patinkin as well as playwright friends Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and Finn.

"The nice thing about making films is the resources you have at your disposal," Lapine says. "But in the end plays are more fun because they're immediate. The audience is right there, and it's changing night to night. What's nice about theater writing is it lives on. That's always very attractive to an ego. When you're a theater director, your productions are finite."

And movie writing? He's written three movies, none of which has ever been made. Asked what they were about, he replies: "One was about an artist." Then, as if he never thought about it before, Lapine pauses and says, "They were actually all about artists. Probably why they never got made."

At press time, "Mikey" had grossed about $11.7 million in the United States and Canada and was still playing on about 180 screens, according to the film's distributor Walt Disney Studios, but Lapine thinks it unlikely he'll jump into another big film right away. "It's not as if 'Life With Mikey' was a terrible experience," he says, "because it wasn't. The fact that it hasn't done that well doesn't really affect the experience of making it at all." He is, in fact, "sort of ambivalent. I certainly was glad I did 'Life With Mikey.' I learned a great deal from it, but I think I have to do things that are small and personal and that I generate myself. Movies take such a long time that I realize I have to really desperately want to do one. Otherwise, it's not worth doing."

Lapine says he'd like to do an opera. "Most of the musicals I have done have been moderate size," he says, "and I'd like to do some really gigantic show. Something where visuals are totally the focus, and the story becomes a reason for the visuals."

A new production of "Falsettos," which Lapine will also direct, is expected in Los Angeles early next year at the Doolittle Theatre, and Lapine is also committed to a film of "Falsettos" for Disney and Interscope, which he hasn't yet written. "I like to keep busy," he says. "I seem to function better when I'm doing a few things at once."

Most immediate, however, is the new, yet unnamed Sondheim/Lapine collaboration. It will take shape in a closed workshop at New York's Lincoln Center this fall, and Lapine says its future life will depend on whether he and Sondheim decide to go with it as two one-acts or a full evening.

It will be their first show together since '87, and Sondheim says they've worked on it sporadically over the last couple years. The book is about three-fourths written, says Lapine, and outlined, and Sondheim is currently writing the songs.

Does it bother Lapine that all these shows are usually called "Sondheim musicals"?

"Nah, it doesn't bother me," he says, shrugging. "It's to be expected. It slightly annoys me when actors say they really want to work with Sondheim, but I don't really care. I'd obviously prefer the shows be associated with me as well, but they're musicals and people go to musicals to hear music."

The first half of this new show is based on the 19th-Century Italian novel "Fosca" (also made into the Italian film "Passione d'amore") and is about "a sick, ugly woman who, through the force of her passion, gets a very handsome Italian soldier to fall in love with her." The second is based on "Muscle," Sam Fussell's autobiographical book about a young man "who gives up pursuit of a life in academia to become a competitive body-builder."

Both halves are meditations on beauty, but Lapine says he doesn't question why certain subjects and ideas interest him. "I like to work intuitively," he says. "Part of the fun is the mystery of where one simple idea can take you."

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