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Telling Uncle Irving's Story, in 2 Acts

Christopher Hart jumped at the chance to write a play on a family friend--super agent 'Swifty' Lazar.

April 14, 1999|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1997, an item in Variety caught Christopher Hart's eye: Broadway and film producer David Brown ("A Few Good Men," "Tru") had optioned the rights to the late Hollywood super agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar's autobiography.

Brown intended to bring the star-studded, rags-to-riches story of Hollywood's most famous literary and talent agent to the stage.

"I didn't know Brown," recalled Hart, 49. "But I called him and said, 'I think I'm the guy for the project.' "

There's no question Hart knows his subject.

Hart was a Broadway and Hollywood producer who had just co-written and directed his first play; Hart's father was legendary Broadway playwright Moss Hart. And the elder Hart just happened to be Lazar's first client, after making the transition from band booker to literary agent in the 1940s.

As a boy in Manhattan in the 1950s, Chris Hart knew Lazar as Uncle Irving. In Hollywood years later, he and Lazar had monthly lunches, and, when Lazar died in 1993 at age 86, Hart delivered one of the eulogies.

Brown was so impressed with Hart's ideas on how to tackle the material that he commission Hart to write the play.

"Swifty," which Hart also directs, is in its world premiere production at the Grove Theater Center's Gem Theater in Garden Grove, where it continues through April 25.

The play, produced by the Grove Theater Center in association with Brown and Annette Tapert, stars David Wohl in the title role of the bantam-sized, sometimes brazen agent with the bald head and trademark oversized horn-rimmed glasses.

The two-act play opens in Lazar's Beverly Hills home, where he's planning the celebrity seating arrangements for his annual Oscar night party at Spago, where Hollywood's biggest party historically was held on its biggest night of the year.

It is early 1993, not long after the death of Lazar's wife, Mary, of cancer. At 86, Lazar is suffering physical problems. He's also beginning to see his power slip and thinks his second in command is stealing his clients. The presence of a reporter (played by Linda Gehringer), who is writing a profile of Lazar for Vanity Fair, prompts Lazar to look back on his life.

'Irving Was a Great Storyteller'

Six actors play two dozen characters from Lazar's past. Appearing in flashbacks, they include a host of vintage celebrities, from Cole Porter to Ernest Hemingway to Frank Sinatra. Sometimes their stories run counter to the self-mythologizing Lazar's own version.

"There's all sorts of wonderful storytelling [in the play], because that's who he was," Hart said. "Irving was a great storyteller. He sold himself for 86 years; he eventually became even more celebrated than most of his clients.

"David Wohl is doing a very good job capturing the essence of this guy. It's interesting to see [Lazar] come alive again."

Seated in the theater's upstairs lounge after a recent rehearsal, Hart said he had access to 14 boxes of files, correspondence and audiotaped reminiscences from Lazar's estate while writing the play.

Lazar's autobiography "and this treasure trove of material helped me in the first act to get him set up [as a character]," the playwright said. "Then the rest of it was poetic license. My feeling is the play, in the second act, is more about his emotional life and what makes him tick. You see what's really going on underneath the skin."

Lazar married at 56. A lady's man before then, Lazar remained one.

"Swifty was sort of a notoriously randy character, even in his dotage. And we try to show that throughout the play," Hart said. "There is a line in the play, 'I thought as I got older, I'd lose the itch. I was kind of looking forward to that, but sometimes it gets even stronger.' "

It wasn't until after Lazar's wife died of cancer, Hart said, that he appreciated what he had in her.

"A lot of people take their spouses for granted, and it's only after they're gone that they see what a hole has been punched in their lives," Hart said.

The play spans the last eight months of Lazar's life. He died of kidney failure after, according to Hart, a lifetime of using prescription "uppers and downers."

In commissioning Hart to write the play, Brown said by telephone from New York, "it was his take on the subject matter, the fact that he didn't want to do a conventional one-man play" that convinced him to go with Hart.

"He [also] had a familiarity with the subject on the inside," said Brown, who felt Lazar was an ideal subject for a play.

"I thought Swifty was a metaphor for Hollywood, and Hollywood is a brand name known throughout the world," Brown said. "Since I knew Irving Paul Lazar--him having been my wife's [Helen Gurley Brown's] agent and my own personal colleague and friend in Hollywood, and [as a studio executive, I] had bought properties from Irving--I felt an affinity and I knew he was a fascinating man."

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