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THEATER

New Stage, New Mind-Set

Two alums of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf will draw on those days, not relive them, at the Geffen.

February 04, 2001|HUGH HART | Los Angeles writer Hugh Hart is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Imagine Bruce Willis and Jeremy Irons sitting politely on a sofa, and you'll have a rough picture of the talented odd couple from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre who are now calling the shots at the Geffen Playhouse.

Managing director Steve Eich, the one with the shaved pate, was hired in September to run the business side of the Westwood operation. Picking the plays is artistic director Randall Arney, a lanky, lupine, boyishly enthusiastic actor and director who joined the Geffen just over a year ago.

Mounted on the wall behind them: a poster for "The Grapes of Wrath," their Steppenwolf production that won a 1990 Tony Award for best play. But they're here to talk about Conor McPherson's "The Weir." The play will mark Arney's directorial debut at the Geffen when it opens Wednesday. The five-person cast includes two members of the Steppenwolf company, John Mahoney and Francis Guinan. Arney says that's just coincidence.

In fact, Eich and Arney insist that any attempt to re-create a Steppenwolf-style vibe in Los Angeles would be wrongheaded. "The work we did in Chicago gave us an amazing background and a whole bunch of ammunition in terms of running a theater, both artistically and as a business," says Arney. "But for us to try and impose something else from the past on this time and this place would be backward-looking. A theater should serve the community that it's in and the community should feed back to the theater what it wants and what it needs."

Some of those needs, Eich says, may sound elementary but are key to maintaining the theater's 12,000-plus subscription base. "You have to address what the patrons think about. Parking. Where is it? How far do I have to drive? How long is the show? People out here--it's not that they're busier than in Chicago, but there's a sense that if they're going to venture to someplace, you want that experience to be rewarding."

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Eich and Arney both started working at Steppenwolf in 1980. In 1987, Arney became artistic director. Over the next eight years, Arney saw his role as "the care and feeding of this group of artists."

It was some group.

During Steppenwolf's first few years, John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, Glenne Headly, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney provided the theater's creative pulse. As his troupe launched film and TV careers, Arney recruited new company members and guest artists, while Eich, as managing director, oversaw the creation of a $9-million theater complex in 1990.

In 1994, Arney transferred his Steppenwolf-originated production of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" to Los Angeles during the final days of the Westwood Playhouse, where he first met Geffen founder and current producing director Gil Cates. Arney checked in five years later to see if the Geffen wanted to stage "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," in which he directed Laurie Metcalf. Cates passed on the offer but made one of his own: He needed an artistic director--would Arney be interested? A few months later, Cates recruited Eich to take charge of the theater's annual $5-million budget.

"I like their energy and like their enthusiasm," says Cates, taking a break from his producing duties for the Academy Awards. "Randy agrees fundamentally with our mission--quality, excellence, not doing something just to get an audience. We're not using stars if they're not good actors."

For his part, Eich was captivated by Cates' industry savvy and the chance to re-team with Arney. "I wouldn't be here unless Randy was doing this," says Eich, who co-produced Paul Simon's "Capeman" on Broadway after leaving Steppenwolf in 1995. "I took this job because I knew I would be working with somebody that I already had a shorthand with."

What about that shorthand? You might think Arney would hanker for the sense of community that comes from putting on one play after another with the same colleagues. "A group of actors working together over time does create a bond," notes Arney. "But what I've found is, there are tenets of ensemble [acting] that have to do with the way you work in a rehearsal room. It starts with contracts, and it starts with the fact that all actors know they are equally important to a project. So whether you have the same personalities play after play or not--and that hasn't even happened at Steppenwolf over the past 10 years--what you do is take some of those lessons about trust, about acting as a cooperative, about the way to approach the work, and a way to rehearse a play, and what's important to keep our eye on and what's not, and that I can apply to every single cast we assemble here at the Geffen."

Still, a little shared history can work wonders. Mahoney and Arney had acted in several plays together, and Arney had directed the "Frasier" co-star in "Death and the Maiden." When they bumped into each other at Paramount last year, Mahoney told Arney he'd be interested in doing "The Weir."

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