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A Lack Of Direction

Actors? L.A.'s theater scene is second to none when it comes to high-octane talent. What's needed is an influx of vision and respect for the director's art.

August 19, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

There are few cities in the world that have such an enviable population of working actors as Los Angeles. From the hills and valleys to the beaches and beyond, the region is positively teeming with them. And they're not just congregating at the Ivy or the bar at the Chateau Marmont, or my high-octane West Hollywood health club, where I often feel surrounded by their killer abs. These professional players are part of a staggeringly widespread theater scene, and their presence on our stages is one of the defining contours of the cultural landscape here.

Not surprisingly, a good portion of what's presented at the smaller venues is actor-driven. The sub-100-seat houses, granted a special dispensation by Actors' Equity to accommodate the desire of many of its members to work regardless of wage scale, provide an endless stream of opportunities. Yet something seems missing. Time and again, I leave one of these magical mouse holes marveling at the quality and commitment of the actors on display but desperately wishing they were in more adept directorial hands.

The lingering doubts about whether L.A. is a "theater town" tends to make me a bit snappish. Of course it is: How many other cities in the world boast such extensive offerings? But whether it's a theater town that's particularly hospitable to directors is an open question. And its answer may just determine whether this is a leading theatrical capital or an accidental oasis where, amid some serious work, an army of actors more interested in film and TV keep themselves fresh.

Most recently, it was a production of John Patrick Shanley's "Danny & the Deep Blue Sea" at the Elephant Stageworks that had me admiring the performances while shrugging my shoulders about the otherwise shaky direction. These sorts of mixed feelings usually take hold whenever I visit one of the local companies operating under the mistaken principle that a show is equal to the sum of its acting parts.

To its considerable credit, this production of "Danny" was deeply inhabited on a moment-to-moment basis by its actors, Deborah Dir and Daniel De Weldon. Subtitled "An Apache Dance," the play is a disorienting tango of intimacy involving the pickup of a roughneck single guy by a nutty divorcee in a Bronx bar. Nothing more than gritty authenticity would seem to be required.

Yet Shanley's two-hander, which explores the inevitable blurring of romantic fairy tale with unromantic personal history, is as much about storytelling as it is about falling in love. And this loftier dimension of the drama -- the freewheeling way in which truth and fantasy amorously collide -- was given short shrift by the director. If earthbound realism was all you cared about, you came to the right place. But that approach made Shanley's narrowly focused play appear even narrower.

Sometimes it's the more memorable aspects of a production that sharpen your regret over the lack of directorial finesse. At the end of "The Women of Lockerbie" at the Actors' Gang last spring, I sat for a while in my car, unable to drive out of the parking lot. The soul-mauling shrieks of Kate Mulligan, who played a distraught New Jersey housewife whose son was killed in the 1988 Pan Am flight brought down by terrorists, and the persevering compassion of the Scottish women who were witnesses to the shocking tragedy, left me emotionally wrecked.

After I was able to consider the production with a cooler head, however, I remembered my frustration at the scattershot staging. The playing area was ill-defined, the actors never threaded into an ensemble, and there was little effort to find a compelling imagistic life for the piece. The pathos of Deborah Brevoort's powerful though problematic play managed to come through -- it's a devastating subject -- but the jerry-built production seemed cobbled together by a committee rather than guided by an assured, integrating sensibility.

Weak directing, however, doesn't customarily result in a net-positive. The turbulently affecting journeys of "Danny & the Deep Blue Sea" and "The Women of Lockerbie" are anomalous. Generally speaking, it takes more than a few robust performances to save a show. The rightness of Eddie Jones' ordinary-as-cold-cuts Willy Loman wasn't enough to rescue the sluggishly paced revival of "Death of a Salesman" at the Odyssey Theatre last fall. Nor was Robert Mandan's truly magisterial Lear able to eclipse all that was wrong with the disjointed, acting-class version of Shakespeare's oversized masterpiece at the Electric Lodge last summer.

When the play is fiendishly over-the-top, the damage can be even more blatant. (Surface realism can mask a multitude of sins.) Last spring, the Actors Co-op's revival of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," a blithely anachronistic tragicomedy, never found its footing. The cast looked like it wanted to have fun but rarely felt secure enough to let go in a production that lacked the courage of its playful convictions.

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