If he weren't such an impresario, says his friend, this would be the most pointless of stories.
His friend is John Lahr, drama critic of the New Yorker, son of actor Bert Lahr and the author of something like 15 books on the theater, who once, in testament to their decades-long friendship, spent three months living in Gordon Davidson's house while trying to write a screenplay.
"If you're writing about Gordon," says Lahr, letting a wicked smile creep across his wheat-colored, pug-nosed mien, "then you have to have some fishing stories."
This is a few weeks ago in the lobby of New York's fabled Algonquin Hotel, where Davidson and Lahr are meeting, midway between their respective homes in Los Angeles and London, to talk about theater--specifically the Broadway opening of "Perestroika," the second part of Tony Kushner's epic drama "Angels in America." Davidson is one of the play's chief producers and cheerleaders. After an acclaimed run last year at Davidson's theater, the Mark Taper Forum, "Millennium Approaches," the first part of "Angels," earned Kushner a Pulitzer and launched the playwright toward Broadway, where it won four Tonys.
This afternoon, in the Algonquin's paneled confines on West 44th Street, there is the palpable sense of another hit in the making. And not just "Perestroika." By the end of this season, Davidson will have piloted five productions to New York, of which Kushner's drama and "The Kentucky Cycle," Robert Schenkkan's massive Pulitzer Prize-winning historical saga, were among the most anticipated plays of the year. It is a track record that no other artistic director in the country can currently match, one that has propelled Davidson into the front ranks of Broadway's players.
After some talk about opening nights and last-minute rewrites, the conversation veers, over loosened ties and Bloody Marys, toward the retelling of old tales. "I took Gordon on his first fishing trip," says Lahr, who, unlike the Brooklyn-born Davidson, is prone to Norman Maclean-style exploits on Montana's Big Blackfoot River. "So we're in the boat and Gordon lands his first fish."
Lahr pauses, glances at Davidson, who is smiling into his glass, and plunges on. "So Gordon turns to me and asks, 'How do you kill it?' and before I can say anything, he stabs it with a knife."
Like any producer worth his percentage of the gross, there are two Gordon Davidsons. One comes blazing at you with that shock of white hair, the chipped-tooth grin: a loyal, hard-working, paternalistic producer in the Old Broadway way, with a too-ready handshake, a suite at the Algonquin and a yellow silk pocket handkerchief. The other man is darker, more difficult to see, but no less present: proud, competitive, easily wounded, a suspicious realist who keeps everyone waiting and has more frequent flier miles than all of you combined. A bona fide \o7 doppelganger\f7 . Ask anyone.
Among those who have worked closely with Davidson in the three decades he has lived in Los Angeles, piloting the Taper from an unknown university-sponsored troupe into a mini-theatrical empire of national renown, metaphors abound. He is Ibsen's "The Master Builder"!--"happiest when he is building something his way." He is Shakespeare's Prospero!--"easily commanding lots of spirits." He is, variously, "a brilliant salesman," "the consummate politician," "a true visionary," "a social humanist in Los Angeles who reads!" and "my hero!" (That last one from a state arts official, no less.)
But Davidson's faults have always been at least as captivating as his virtues, and there are other, less flattering comparisons that suggest that his preeminence as the city's de facto culture czar has been hard won.
Complaints have been voiced that in "sniffing the air for those ideas that excite him," as one Taper staffer puts it, Davidson has neglected local playwrights--particularly Latino, Asian and women writers--while pursuing a high national profile with productions exhibiting a potential commercial afterlife. This perception has gone hand-in-hand with criticisms that Davidson is controlling, self-serving, too eager for the limelight, unweaned from Broadway.
"Gordon is the reigning godfather of the American regional theater movement," says William A. Henry III, theater critic of Time magazine, summing up the verbal hyperventilation that has become testimony to Davidson's influence.
"Gordon is like director Hal Prince was in the '80s," observes Wiley Hausam, a former playwright's agent and current director of public affairs at the New York Shakespeare Festival, "a man so successful that people started wanting to destroy him."
As cool as the eye of the storm: "I am," says Davidson obliquely, "just trying to mediate between artists and the commercial world."