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PERFORMING ARTS

New Insight into a noted playwright's legacy

January 10, 2008|Mindy Farabee

PLAYWRIGHT A.R. Gurney doesn't sound particularly optimistic today. "I'm lucky to have been able to catch on to the final throes of theater in this country," he muses in a recent phone interview from the East Coast.

Pessimistic, perhaps, but indefatigable nonetheless. This prolific and acclaimed 77-year-old scribe, responsible for a conspicuous chunk of recent American theater ("Scenes From American Life," "The Dining Room" and "The Cocktail Party," among others) metaphorically returns to Los Angeles this week with the biting new work "Post Mortem," produced by the new-to-L.A. troupe Insight America.

More politically pointed than the WASPish comedies of manners that built his reputation, "Mortem" centers around the discovery of a fictional Gurney play by a repressed drama professor and her love-struck grad student in the near future. Gurney is long dead, but his worst fears are alive and well, with conservative Christians and off-kilter neo-cons running the country. But when the duo produces the new Gurney work, they bring an end to global warming and war and earn the Nobel Prize. "Every playwright hopes to make a dent in the audience," Gurney jokes. And while "Mortem"'s dent is intentionally hyperbolic, plays like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Angels in America" have shown the indelible mark playwrights can make on American culture.

Of course, with Gurney, you can bet that indelible mark comes with some laughs: "The chemistry between our two leads is like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in 'His Girl Friday,' " enthuses director Jered Barclay.

Insight will perform "Mortem's" West Coast premiere in their new home, the old Company of Angels' Silver Lake space, now overhauled by Insight managing artistic director Alan Becker. Although the space is still dusty for the moment, it's apparent the company wants to create a community hub, with a new deck, a reconfigured stage (enclosed in state-of-the-art soundproofing) and the nascent cafe set to start serving soups, salads and mochas this month (independent of performance schedules).

It's built on an idea Becker picked up touring Europe: "We have a European vision for our cafe," he says, "not so much a place like Starbucks, which is about being in a hurry and 'Buy this product while you're here.' "

With a growing roster of eclectic fare (Upright Citizens Brigade has discussed staging classes, Becker says, and Garage Theater of Long Beach's "White Trash Catholic Circus" is settling in for a late-night residency, while a series of staged readings is also in the works), Insight wants to offer not just an accessible space for taking in diverse live entertainment, but also for hanging out and chatting about it.

That's a direct outgrowth of Insight's M.O. Hailing from Seattle, the group is mounting their second L.A. production, though they've toured Europe six times (and Washington state once). "Unlike Broadway companies whose performers never get much beyond their hotel rooms, we reach ordinary folks as ordinary folks," says Becker. "It's about making connections, the connections only artists can make." Sounds like Gurney can rest in peace.

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-- Mindy.Farabee@latimes.com

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'POST MORTEM'

WHERE: The Lyric-Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake

WHEN: 8 p.m., Fri.- Sat. 7 p.m. Sun. (through Feb. 17)

PRICE: $20, seniors; $18, students and guilds

INFO: (800) 595-4849; www.insightamerica.org

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