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They Just Blew Into Town

Steppenwolf Theatre alum Randall Arney has exited the Windy City for L.A. And he's brought along his staging of Steve Martin's 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile.'

January 18, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Randall Arney sits in the living room of his new Hancock Park home on the day before Christmas, with his back to the yet-unpacked boxes tucked away in the adjacent dining room. Soft Los Angeles sunlight streams in through arched picture windows, creating a scene quite different from the many Chicago winters he's known.

That's not why the quietly congenial director-actor, 41, has just relocated to L.A., but it doesn't hurt. After 17 years in the Windy City, the longtime member and former artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company has come here for the same reason that other members of that noted ensemble have taken the trek: to pursue film and TV and perhaps theater as well.

He got his feet wet about a year ago, acting in an HBO Larry Gelbart film called "Weapons of Mass Distraction." More recently, Arney performed opposite Glenne Headly in an L.A. Theatre Works live radio theater taping of Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive." And there is talk of taking his principal project of the last few years--Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," which he has staged in Chicago (twice), L.A., New York and Japan--to London.

Mostly, however, Arney is enjoying the novelty of once again making the rounds of auditions--something he hasn't had the chance to do in a long time.

"I had for eight years been thinking about the group," says Arney, referring to his 1987-95 tenure at the helm of Steppenwolf, during which time he transferred a number of productions to Broadway, including "The Song of Jacob Zulu" and "The Grapes of Wrath," and oversaw the creation of a new $9-million, two-theater artistic home for the company. "I was excited about thinking personally again, about dreams and desires for acting and directing and pursuing the [film] medium out here."

Besides, there was precedent. Arney follows in the footsteps of such Steppenwolf alumni as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.

"A lot of my friends that had been in Chicago and started this theater company with us are now out here," Arney says. "In fact, I have more of those friends here than I do in Chicago now."

As luck would have it, Arney has his work arriving in L.A. with him. His national-tour staging of the popular Martin comedy opens at the Wilshire Theatre on Wednesday, starring Mark Nelson and Paul Provenza.

Set in 1904 in a fictional Paris cafe, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" chronicles an imagined existential te^te-a-te^te between young geniuses Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

Martin's script first landed on Arney's desk in 1993.

"It was the freshest piece of writing I'd read in a while," he recalls. "It's smart and yet wildly funny and stupid at the same time. It's his sensibility, not only the subject matter, and his ideas about what this century is and was.

"Treating a meeting of Picasso and Einstein takes a level of intelligence, to be able to put words in those two guys' mouths. But the play also had such heart and, ultimately, optimism. I was attracted by that, in what is otherwise a fairly cynical landscape of playwriting."

There were also practical factors in the play's favor, not least Martin's celebrity.

"We were looking for a play to open our [new] studio second stage," Arney says. "We wanted a new play with the profile that might bring people to a new space."

Arney decided to offer Martin a production, on the condition that the first-time playwright would come to Chicago.

"I talked to Steve and told him we were interested in doing the play, but only if he had the chance to work with us on it," he says. "I knew that by bringing Steve and a cast of actors and designers together, that would really be the way to take the next step with the play."

Arney was born in Effingham, Ill., a small town about 200 miles south of Chicago, and is one of six children of a schoolteacher-administrator father and homemaker mother.

He attended college at Eastern Illinois University from 1974 to 1978, and that's where he first met some of the people--including Malkovich and Joan Allen-- who were to figure prominently in his theater career.

"Malkovich transferred to a school called Illinois State University in '77," Arney explains. "I would talk to him on the phone from Eastern and he was saying what a great theater department [ISU had] and that I should come there. So when I graduated from Eastern, I went to ISU to get an MFA degree in acting.

"About that time--it was 1977 or 1978--the group was going from Illinois State to Chicago to start Steppenwolf in the basement of a church in Highland Park in Chicago. John would call me from there and say, 'You should quit school and come and join our theater. I'm driving a bus during the day and we're doing plays at night.' "

Arney decided to complete his degree before making the move, which he did in 1980, and then rejoined his friends in Chicago.

"Malkovich was casting the Lanford Wilson play 'Balm in Gilead' and said, 'If you do come here, I'd like you to be in this play.' "

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