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THEATER | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

A door closes, another opens

Robert Egan wanted to succeed Gordon Davidson at the Taper. It didn't happen, and now he's returning to Seattle. It's L.A.'s loss.

January 05, 2003|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

The recent announcement that Robert Egan will be leaving the Mark Taper Forum at the end of the season and returning to Seattle, whence he came 18 years ago, has been news in the theater here, though what kind of news is not altogether clear. It's hard not to see Egan's departure as one of those signposts thrust into the shaky earth we stand on, marking off a two-decade section of our journey toward the notion of theater in Los Angeles. Do people go back to Seattle? Evidently yes.

Egan arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, at the age of 34, fresh from the Seattle Repertory Theater, where he had been second chair to artistic director Daniel Sullivan, the man who would go on to fame directing Broadway hits like "The Heidi Chronicles" and "Proof." Egan took a similar post at the Taper, becoming artistic director Gordon Davidson's right-hand man, charged with developing new plays and playwrights.

That he didn't get the top job in the end or leave for an artistic director's position before now has been a matter for continuing discussion when his name comes up. One local director with an inside knowledge of the Taper told me, "Everyone I know has always assumed he wouldn't get it, while he assumed he would."

True or not, the statement points to a career that can be measured in different ways. Not everyone around the Taper liked or admired Egan. The nature of being a director who, in his particular job, was something of a gatekeeper to the city's main stage, is likely to attract a certain amount of disaffection, rivalry and scorn.

But he also had his champions. And from the distance of an observer, I guess I was one of them, having been impressed by the high quality of his work with contemporary British playwrights. His productions of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (1997) and David Hare's "Skylight" (1997), for example, were stunning, I thought, as was his staging of the world premiere of Jon Robin Baitz's apartheid drama "The Film Society" at the Los Angeles Theater Center back in 1987.

Among his other notable productions were John Steppling's "The Dream Coast" (1986); Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," with Kelsey Grammer in 1985; and the West Coast premiere of "The Guys," Anne Nelson's duet for fireman and journalist, with Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt, at the Actors' Gang last summer.

When I heard he was leaving to become artistic director of Seattle's ACT (A Contemporary Theater), I thought back to an interview I did with him when he arrived at the Taper all those years ago in which he explained that the actors, writers and other theater people living in Seattle were quite happy to be there -- and not just biding their time until they could get to New York or Los Angeles. "A lot of the actors there have been to New York and Los Angeles," he said. "And that's why they're in Seattle." What a concept.

Oxford shaped him

I knew something of his talent because I had been to Seattle and seen his production of Christopher Hampton's "Savages," another play by one of those angry, intellectual young Brits for whom he had an affinity. It was an eye-opening evening of anti-imperialist theater that sticks in my mind yet.

"Europe got Freud and Marx, and we got Freud," Egan said in that interview, explaining why political playwrights were more numerous in England than America. He seemed to want to help change that.

The headline on the story I wrote about him in the Herald Examiner, in fact, read: "Will Robert Egan Electrify the Taper?"

I take it he did not, although what stage director in Los Angeles could live up to that verb? His own ideas of theater were shaped by the postgraduate years he spent after Boston College at Oxford, where he was nudged toward the political ramparts by the "life-affirming rage" he found in the confrontational work of Hare and his contemporaries.

"Theater was a political act at Oxford," he said, recalling the plays of Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Edward Bond and John Arden, British writers who were, in Egan's words, examining "the relationship between individuals and the social world they live in." That would be his goal as well.

But like many a left-leaning American working in the milieu of the upper middle class, Egan was dogged by the charge that he was having it both ways, talking a good game of radical politics while living a life of high-end American affluence. Some at the theater called him "the Brentwood Marxist," a reference to the expensive home he shared with television and stage actress Kate Mulgrew until their marriage came apart in the early 1990s.

"There are contradictions in capitalist society," he said on this subject recently when we met for breakfast at a cafe in the Palisades to talk about his imminent departure. "People have to be honest about contradictions. Then interesting conversations can take place. We live in Contradictionland."

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