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Simon says 'Alagazam' to Gang

October 20, 2002|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

"I was astonished," said Adam Simon, describing his first impression -- in 1985 -- of the Actors' Gang.

Simon's latest collaboration with the Gang's artistic director Tim Robbins, "Alagazam," opened Friday at the Gang's Hollywood theater. But its origin goes back to that day in 1985.

The not-yet-famous Robbins, the Gang's co-founder and benefactor, met the then-23-year-old Simon -- who had just arrived in L.A. to attend graduate film school at USC -- at a party and invited him to watch the Gang improvise the following morning.

Arriving at the Gang's downtown loft slightly hung over, Simon recalled, he found two actors doing a fight scene, "but they weren't using swords or Kazan-style fisticuffs. It was like seeing a Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoon come to life. They were being everything -- the weapon, the blood, the effects.

"They seemed to be reborn vaudevillians, as if they would be at home in a W.C. Fields or a Jimmy Cagney movie. There was a direct, spontaneous connection to that raw, anarchic strain of popular American culture."

Simon had studied that side of Americana at Harvard, and he felt right at home. He dug up a short story he had written when he was about 15, and soon he and Robbins turned it into a play, "Slick Slack Griff Graff."

The Actors' Gang presented it for only three performances at the tiny Wallenboyd, a now-defunct performance center in downtown L.A., but it enjoyed a longer run in Chicago. It became the first of three Actors' Gang collaborations between Robbins and Simon. The next two, "Violence" and "Carnage," added daringly original work to the Gang's L.A. reputation, which had been established with rough-edged revivals.

Most of the Gang's devotees never saw "Slick Slack." But "Alagazam," which is a "20% rewritten" version of "Slick Slack," Simon said, will give them a glimpse of this seminal work.

"Alagazam" is set within a traveling medicine show in a fictitious version of the '40s, one in which "some apocalyptic event like Hiroshima recently happened here in the Midwest," Simon said.

The play was "the least realized" of the Robbins-Simon collaborations, Simon said, tempting them to try again.

Robbins cited other reasons to revive the piece. The Gang "has been doing some pretty heady stuff, and a lot of people just want to cut loose." Also, much of "Alagazam" is "about war and its aftermath, the neutralization of dissent, and what happens when entertainment becomes a distraction rather than a visceral communal experience."

Simon agreed. "As we started to revive it, we started to feel the resonance of these people being nervous and depressed about a recent disaster that may happen again. It's about the sacrifices people are willing to make in response to fear."

Lest all this sound too calculatedly arty, let the record show that Simon's first post-USC gig was making Roger Corman movies like "Brain Dead" and "Carnosaur," which Simon described as "undoubtedly the greatest dinosaur movie ever made for $800,000."

Simon's affection for popular showmanship was evident during the rewriting of "Alagazam." He could hardly stop writing new grifter pitches during the rewriting process, Robbins said. "He's a reincarnation of an old-style grifter -- by way of Harvard."

*

Snake oil salesman

What: "Alagazam"

When: Fridays, Saturdays, 10 p.m.

Where: Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

Ends: Dec. 21

Price: $12

Contact: (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15; www.theactorsgang.com

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