On her wedding day, a bride arrives at the wooded spot where the ceremony will be held and exclaims, "Oh! This is the perfect place for a wedding." To which her cynical, self-sufficient sister, adds: "if you have to get married at all, although, for the life of me I don't see why anyone ever does anymore. What could be the point?" "Love would be the point, Tessa: love," the radiant bride replies.
From these first few words, the new play "A Perfect Wedding," which inaugurates the Kirk Douglas Theatre, begins to develop into a sort of fugue. The subject -- love -- will be picked up and restated by each character, and as the topic is passed from person to person, it will be expanded and sometimes deconstructed, until the piece has evolved into a glittering kaleidoscope of points and counterpoints.
As Charles L. Mee's grandly emotional, gently philosophical play swells to 20 characters and many additional subthemes, it becomes at times repetitious and unruly. But it's funny, fresh and heartfelt too, and as it ponders beginnings and endings, as marked by weddings and funerals, it reveals itself as an entirely appropriate piece for the occasion, for it launches this lovely new performing venue just as the man who dreamed it into being, Center Theatre Group's founding artistic director Gordon Davidson, departs.
If the shape and scope of "A Perfect Wedding" seem familiar, that's because its author loves to build his stories on the foundations of existing ones. In this case, Mee -- author of such plays as "The Berlin Circle" and "Big Love" -- invokes "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the beloved Shakespeare tale about the persistent yet sometimes untrustworthy nature of human desire.
Shakespeare's story unfolds largely in the woods, where nature's majesty overwhelms worldly distractions and reconnects the characters to life's essentials. Similarly, Mee deposits his collection of ultra-sophisticated, present-day characters in a stretch of woods on Martha's Vineyard. The earth-toned curtains of Donna Marquet's set design, dappled by the sun of D Martyn Bookwalter's lighting, abstractly suggest this enchanted place.
As the bride (Ruth Livier) and her siblings (Jennifer Elise Cox and Jason Peck) are joined by their parents (Cristine Rose and James Sutorius) and the parents' current romantic partners (Mark Capri and Tony Abatemarco), the story adds tradition and ritual to its opening themes of love and commitment. Things go awry, however, as the parents meet the groom (Harry Dillon) for the first time. An ill-worded comment troubles the groom and, needing to get away, he stalks into the woods. As the others race after him, they become separated and lose their way.
The search party includes the sister's and brother's respective romantic interests (Leo Marks and Melody Butiu). Venturing ever deeper into nature and its mysteries, the young couples pull apart and reconnect in new pairings -- some of which are nontraditional.
These activities are observed by the equivalent of Shakespeare's fairy-kingdom characters, depicted here as a quartet of gay wedding planners (John Fleck, Jim Anzide, Wilson Cruz and Jon David Casey), who offer support and advice.
As discomfiting as some of the romantic expression might be, it nevertheless expands Mee's inquiry into the ways of the heart.
Too often absorbed in mini-dramas, the parents have made their offspring wary of love. Yet the parents haven't given up on commitment; their once-traditional lives, dismantled by the truer yearnings of their hearts, have been refashioned into something perhaps more durable.
Mee's subtheme of tradition is, meanwhile, expanded to a global perspective by the arrival of the groom's parents, a cross-continental marriage of India (Brian George) and Africa (Veralyn Jones). Later, the appearance of a pair of philosophizing, "Hamlet"-ian gravediggers (Raymond O'Connor and Katherine Griffith) introduces the subject of death, which perhaps will prompt these characters to stop dithering and start enjoying life, before it's too late.
Songs and dances further spice this rich stew of ideas.
Mee restates and sometimes over-elaborates his ideas, yet in so doing he presents provocative notions, as when his gay characters, considered social nonconformists, turn out to be the truest preservers of tradition.
Commissioned and developed by Center Theatre Group, "A Perfect Wedding" sends the Douglas Theatre off to a fast, bold start. A thoroughly up-to-date facility encased in the historic shell of the Culver Theater in Culver City, the 300-seat theater joins the organization's larger venues in downtown Los Angeles: the Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre. Shows scheduled for the first season highlight its intended use as a site for new plays and theater for young audiences.
Davidson, who is about to depart Center Theatre Group after leading it for 37 years, has directed the presentation. He irons out wrinkles here and -- with valuable assistance from choreographer Christine Kellogg -- pumps up the fun over there. Although the action tends, at times, toward cartoonishness, Davidson keeps the emotions grounded in truth. So much so that by the time a character declares, "as often as we give up on [love] as hopeless and old-fashioned, nothing can put an end to it," we can only smile and nod our heads in agreement.
'A Perfect Wedding'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. Nov. 22 and 2 p.m. Nov. 24. No performance Thanksgiving Day; 2 p.m. only Nov. 28
Ends: Nov. 28
Price: $19 to $40
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.KirkDouglasTheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes