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Davidson the director reemerges

In his second-to-last season, the Mark Taper Forum's leader will stage three of the six shows for 2003-04.

May 23, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

No tapering toward retirement for Gordon Davidson. Shouldering a hefty workload, he will direct three of the six plays in the Mark Taper Forum's 2003-04 season -- his second-to-last running the theater he has led since 1967.

Davidson will stage the world premiere (Dec. 4-Jan. 25) of an as-yet untitled musical about the world of jazz, written by a team of Tony-, Grammy- and Osar-winning show-biz mainstays: composer Cy Coleman, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and writer Larry Gelbart. Then he will direct the U.S. premiere of Christopher Hampton's "The Talking Cure" (April 15-May 23, 2004) and the world premiere of the Taper-commissioned "Be Bold" by Sybille Pearson (Aug. 5-Sept. 12, 2004).

The three other plays are all high-profile recent works: Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" (Oct. 2-Nov. 9); Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Topdog/Underdog" (Feb. 12-March 28, 2004); and Marie Jones' "Stones in His Pockets" (June 10-July 18, 2004).

Davidson, who turned 70 on May 7, says he wants to end his career as the Taper's artistic director at full creative speed -- especially after the past decade or more, when increased administrative duties have made his once-regular directing turns a rarity. From 1967, when the Taper opened, through 1989, Davidson directed more than a play a year on average. His most prolific season, which he is now poised to match, was 1975-76, when the three shows he directed included the world premiere of "The Shadow Box." Michael Cristofer's drama about dying people in a hospice won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize; Davidson took the show to Broadway that year and won a Tony Award for best director.

In 1989, the Taper's larger sister theater, the Ahmanson, also came under Davidson's directorship. Since then, the added duties have limited him to just three directorial turns at the Taper, he said.

With his reign ending, Davidson said, the hands-on mounting of plays is again going to be his thing -- although he says he will continue to put plenty of time into fund-raising. "It's not that I'm being greedy," Davidson said of taking half the season's directing opportunities. But each one, he says, especially intrigues him.

Davidson, who will leave his post after Dec. 31, 2004, plans to select all of the plays to be programmed in 2004-05 on Center Theatre Group's three stages -- the Taper, Ahmanson and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre, the 320-seat house scheduled to open that fall in Culver City.

It's uncertain whether his successor (or successors, given the possibility of a return to separate directors for the Taper and Ahmanson) will be on board by then to have any input. Davidson said that on Wednesday a consultant gave the Center Theatre Group's search committee a slate of candidates, but he refused to discuss how many are on the list or who they are.

Leading off the 2003-04 season, "Homebody/Kabul" will include revisions Kushner has made since the show was announced for last fall at the Taper, then pulled for further work. Linda Emond will return to the role she originated in 2001 in New York as the Homebody, a middle-aged Englishwoman who becomes fascinated with pre-Sept. 11 Afghanistan.

"Topdog/Underdog," about the ultimately tragic love and rivalry between street-hustling African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth, will be the first major production of a Parks play in her adopted hometown. George C. Wolfe, who directed the show on and off-Broadway, will stage the Taper version too.

"Stones in His Pockets" toured widely after succeeding in London's West End and on Broadway. Two actors play a variety of characters in a small Irish village invaded by a Hollywood film crew.

The new jazz musical grew out of a concert titled "Portraits in Jazz," staged last May at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. On that night, Coleman and the Bergmans provided onstage commentary to go with their songs. They subsequently recruited Gelbart to add theatrical linkages between numbers. Davidson listened to a recording of the Kennedy Center concert, thought it would make a full-fledged -- albeit unorthodox -- musical, and decided to direct the first production.

Coleman said the show is not a history of jazz or a tribute to its real-life heroes, but it will evoke the music and personas of actual luminaries. A member of the onstage band will key the spoken "connective tissue" between songs, and each number will offer a separate story or vignette about the jazz life.

"The Talking Cure" concerns the stormy, short-lived mentor-protege relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Davidson and playwright Hampton are old friends, Davidson having directed the English writer's "Savages" at the Taper in 1974-75 and "Tales of Hollywood" in 1981-82.

Davidson chose the subject of "Be Bold," commissioning Pearson, whose "Unfinished Stories" he directed in 1992, for the tale of refugee film and stage artists Salka and Berthold Viertel. They fled the Nazis and reestablished their careers in Hollywood.

"I think the title reflects a lot of what I've felt about running this theater," Davidson said. Being bold once may not be that uncommon. "But how do you stay bold? It's about appetite and how you grab onto life."

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