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Davidson: A Hard Act to Follow

June 29, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS and DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gordon Davidson was never sure how long his act would last in Los Angeles.

For the first two years he worked here in the mid-1960s, the 69-year-old theater producer and director confesses, he and his wife kept their New York apartment. And in 1967, when he slotted "The Devils" as the opening production in his first season leading the Mark Taper Forum, the theater company's board was nervous enough about the story--it involves a priest, a nun and their sexual fantasies--to send board Chairman Lew Wasserman out to ask if Davidson would be willing to start with something less controversial.

Sorry, Davidson remembers telling Wasserman, it's too late to change.

Amid complaints by church officials and county supervisors, the show went on, as have more than 200 Taper productions under Davidson's leadership over the 35 years since then. Along the way, Davidson not only emerged as dean of a burgeoning regional theater scene, he won the West Coast a seat at the New York tables where serious theatrical conversations are held.

So Friday's news that Davidson will give up his Taper and Ahmanson posts at the close of 2004 has theater people buzzing. And at the Taper and its downtown sibling the Ahmanson--both operated by the Center Theatre Group--the institutional soul-searching has just begun.

"He'll be a tough act to follow," said playwright Terrence McNally, who has had four productions staged at the Taper, most recently "Master Class" in 1994-95. "I can't imagine theater in Los Angeles without him."

Apart from the productions that won the Taper its greatest notice--shows like 1978's "Zoot Suit," 1979's "Children of a Lesser God" and 1992's "Angels in America"--Davidson brought to the theater a steady supply of works rich in social consciousness and high in plain entertainment value: Daniel Berrigan's "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" (a 1971 world premiere), Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" (a world premiere in 1986-87); George C. Wolfe's musical "Jelly's Last Jam" (a world premiere in 1990-91); and Peter Parnell's "QED," a 2000-2001 world premiere.

Despite perennial rumors of his imminent departure, he outlasted five Los Angeles Times theater critics and sent more than 35 productions on to Broadway.

Since 1989, Davidson has also run the larger Ahmanson Theater. That stage, which seats audiences of up to 2,100, generally serves as a presenter of road shows born elsewhere, but occasionally presents world premieres or Broadway tryouts, such as this year's reworking of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods."

"I think of him as the father of Los Angeles theater--although he has always seemed to me a young guy," said Dan Sullivan, the Los Angeles Times theater critic from 1969 to 1989. "I thought that he was such a charming fellow that I could only afford to talk to him about once a year. We had a breakfast meeting once a year."

But between breakfasts, Sullivan said, Davidson gave him and L.A. audiences a nourishing, provocative diet of theater that sought to address "all those worlds that comprise L.A. When I went to the Taper, I didn't always have a good time, but I always knew that the show was there because Gordon thought it was interesting."

Still, not everyone in theater circles is grieving over Davidson's departure plans. Some critics have long complained that Davidson hasn't given local talent its due and has worried more about exporting shows to Broadway than building a theater community at home. Seasoned theatergoers, meanwhile, trade tales of the times they've spied the silver-haired impresario nodding off in the audience of one show or another.

But few producers anywhere can rival the list of projects he has encouraged and productions he has nurtured. Davidson has staged premieres of works by playwrights Athol Fugard, A.R. Gurney, John Guare, Jose Rivera, Anna Deavere Smith, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson. Together, Davidson's productions have earned 18 Tony Awards and three Pulitzers.

"I thought Gordon would be there forever," said playwright Neil Simon, who has twice been produced at the Taper, beginning with 1979's world premiere, "I Ought to Be in Pictures." "He has done an unbelievable job, to fill those two theaters constantly, and mostly with good things." By the time Davidson took over the Taper in 1967, a national surge in regional theater had already begun. Most of its pioneers, including the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (founded in 1963) and the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (founded in 1964), focused on classical repertory, relying on ongoing troupes of actors.

Davidson, operating in the long shadow of the film and television industries, knew he couldn't get that kind of time commitment from the top actors in Los Angeles. Instead of cultivating a troupe, he focused on performing new works. The first Taper season, in fact, included two world premieres and two West Coast premieres.

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