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Greif's Legacy at La Jolla: Stability

October 11, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

The bottom line on Michael Greif--who recently announced that he'll step down as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse after the 1999 season--is that he may be remembered for the bottom line.

Greif, who plans to return to being a New York-based freelance director in order to be closer to loved ones, had an admittedly flashy act to follow when he took over from Des McAnuff in 1995. Since the playhouse was revived in 1983, the dynamic McAnuff had made it a home for innovation and brought it a great deal of acclaim as well. But McAnuff also drew criticism for high-risk spending that sometimes drove the theater onto rocky ground.

For better and worse, Greif's reign hasn't brought the playhouse that kind of notice. Aside from bringing in the hit musical "Rent"--which he has directed in all its incarnations--for its West Coast premiere, the main achievement of his conservative tenure has been fiscal stabilization, as even the theater's own press release underscores. Now, that's not a bad legacy for these lean times, but neither is it sufficient.

If Greif has proven less artistically adventurous than McAnuff, he's also shown a greater propensity for bringing in safe, low-cost, already-produced works--including, for instance, a full three out of six of last season's shows ("Guitar Lessons," "The Captain's Tiger" and the Improbable Theatre's "70 Hill Lane").

"Last season and the 'Rent' season [1997] were typical," says Greif, referring to the recipe that he credits with improving the financial picture. "A lot of the seasons were designed toward a combination of accessible work with more challenging work."

But it's not that simple. Low-risk fare doesn't automatically equal better finances.

First of all, the credit for the stabilization is not Greif's alone. The deficit was reduced by $850,000 during McAnuff's final two seasons, and the remaining $990,000 was wiped out over the course of Greif's first three years. Second, much of the debt-retiring that Greif was able to do was thanks to "Rent," the much-hyped Jonathan Larson rock redo of Puccini's "La Boheme." Take away that and the facile equation falls apart.

In truth, artistic risk-taking can prove a boon or a bust. And seasons can end in the red for a number of reasons.

Shows that may prove challenging or provocative aren't necessarily riskier than fare that simply doesn't generate much excitement. Either way, you can end up with empty seats. And safe fare doesn't move the institution forward artistically or raise its profile.

While there may have been one or two shows of no great interest per McAnuff season, the ratio reversed under Greif.

The highlight of Greif's first playhouse season in 1995 was the Randy Newman musical "Faust," which eventually went on to the Goodman Theater in Chicago but which hasn't yet been able to put together the backing for a go at New York. The gem of the 1996 season was Julie Taymor's "The Green Bird," which the playhouse brought in from New York. And the best show of 1997 was the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical "Harmony," which is slated to open on Broadway this spring, with McAnuff as executive producer.

Aside from these shows, however, much of what's been seen at the playhouse in recent years has been the above-mentioned affordable imports, along with a number of fairly conventional revivals.

Greif himself also staged the premiere of Diana Son's "Boy" at the playhouse in 1996, right after "Rent" went to Broadway. Then, in-between "Boy" and this year's "Dogeaters" (the only playhouse commission to reach the stage since Greif took the helm), Greif mostly directed "Rent" over again for three additional companies.

To hear him tell it, the years of conservatism are about to pay off. "The playhouse finds itself in a period of terrific financial health," says Greif. "So the program we can focus on is riskier than it was five years ago. The newer works can get more attention."

Specifically, the playhouse now has what Greif describes as "a very concrete new play development structure." "I'm actually scheming [to return] here with a number of commissions that I'll be attached to," he says, citing commissions that have gone out to Kate Moira Ryan, Jose Rivera and Neal Bell. "I'm potentially involved with those I've mentioned. And in late '98, we'll announce four more commissions."

Meanwhile, Greif is planning next season and directing the upcoming Paul Scott Goodman musical adaptation of "Bright Lights, Big City," set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in February.

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