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THEATER

Funny How Things Happen

Noted comedy director and UCLA alum John Rando has a homecoming of sorts at the Geffen Playhouse.

July 04, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

John Rando takes comedy seriously. He'd better, because the former UCLA graduate student is fast making a national name for himself directing it.

"Right now, I'd say there are 10, or a dozen, first-rate stage directors alive and working in this country, and John Rando happens to be one of them," says humorist-playwright David Ives, with whom Rando has a long-standing working relationship, including five major productions. The playwright's "All in the Timing," seen at the Geffen Playhouse last season, was directed by Rando in a critically acclaimed production.

"In a profession that's wall-to-wall with charlatans, incompetents, psychopaths and foot fetishists--many of whom I've worked with--John stands out as being educated in the literature and prestidigitational in the craft," Ives enthuses.

"As a director who's acted, he understands actors. As somebody who's good at comedy, he understands humanity. As an Italian, he understands food."

Rando has directed at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, New York's Encore! series, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and other notable venues and currently is returning to the Geffen--the first director invited for a return engagement at the Westwood theater--to direct "Merton of the Movies," the 1922 comedy written by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, which opens Wednesday.

And next season, Rando is slated to stage Neil Simon's new play, "The Dinner Party," which will have its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.

Not bad for a 38-year-old who's making his reputation largely with the kind of plays often dismissed as light fare, compared to drama.

"When you look at the original thinking of what is indeed comic, it's that which is celebrated," says the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite director, seated in an upstairs conference room at the Geffen. "It's that which is shared. For me, the theater is a communal celebration of life. And that is to me the thrilling thing about theater."

In fact, a respect for comedy is something Rando also senses in "Merton of the Movies," which tells the classic tale of a rube who comes to Hollywood to break into the movies. "What I love about it is the sense that there is as much importance and greatness in comedy as there is in anything that is serious, the idea that what is funny is also serious and significant. And that very simple idea I felt was modern and great.

"A lot of my work is comic, not all of it, but yes I'm attracted to that, and this play seemed to speak to me in that way," he continues. "It's also a wonderful satire about silent movie-making, and I'm a big fan of that world."

Kaufman and Connelly were part of the famed Algonquin round-table in New York in the 1920s, and they collaborated on several comedies, of which "Merton of the Movies" was arguably the most successful. Based on a serialized novel by Harry Leon Wilson, published in the Saturday Evening Post, it is a comedy of errors with familiar archetypes, including a megalomaniacal director, an ambitious starlet and a motley crew of has-been character actors.

First staged at New York's Court Theatre, "Merton of the Movies" received a couple of major revivals during the 1970s, including a 1977 staging at the Ahmanson that featured Richard Thomas in the title role.

Rando first read the play two years ago, shortly after directing "Strike Up the Band" (book by Kaufman, adaptation by Ives) for Encore! At first, he was drawn to the play's romantic aspect. "One part of the play that was an attraction to me was the relationship between Merton, this simpleton with these dreams, who arrives in Hollywood and meets this gung-ho, smart, witty woman, and despite himself falls in love with her."

Upon closer inspection, however, Rando became even more impressed by the play's style. "There's the whole Kaufman sense of comic style that has to do with the wit, the language, the kind of verve that the play has, and the sensibility--its view of the way the world works."

To the uninitiated, that kind of style might seem dated, or unplayable, but not to Rando. "It has this commitment to the 'gosh, oh golly, gee-whiz' style," he says. "If you comment on it or if you ignore it, then it will seem dated. But if it's fully committed, it will feel fun.

"These guys actively chose to put this play in a stylized form. And if you embrace that, then the audience is able to recognize it as a valentine and appreciate it on that level. Kaufman, while he satirizes, he also celebrates, and I think that's the real genius of it."

The satire might even be considered social satire. "Obviously, that was a prosperous time, and they were poking fun at these rags-to-riches stories, because there were a lot of those stories going on then," Rando says. "That kind of wit is another thing that I found fascinating--something that points to the sense of really having to look at where all this prosperity can lead to in terms of the human psyche and human struggle."

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