Seeing 10 shows requires over 200 miles of car travel
To call Los Angeles a nontheater town is wrong. Rather, it’s an audience-unfriendly town.At the height of the Gotham theater season in late April, I took in 10 shows in one week, and my biggest hassle had to do with keeping straight my dinner reservations L.A. is different. Seeing 10 shows in one month involves well over 200 miles of car travel (often in rush hour traffic) from my Hollywood home base, and the major decision isn’t where to eat but whom to invite. In New York, if you or your date doesn’t like the show, one of you can cab it home during intermission. In L.A., that kind of midplay bailout can result in a major altercation followed by a $50 cab fare. The 2009-10 L.A. theater season, as well as my legit tour, begins auspiciously on Sept. 4 with an 18-mile trip to see Charles Randolph-Wright’s new “The Night Is a Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Although the drama’s scheme of soulful Brazilians/repressed Bostonians wears thin, “Night” is a fascinating companion piece to the playwright’s previous mother-as-survivor piece, “Blue,” and it is nice to see that most empathetic of actresses, JoBeth Williams, on stage. On Sept 9, I drive 36 miles in the opposite direction to the Getty Villa on the Pacific Palisades to see Aristophanes’ “Peace” as reinterpreted by Culture Clash. Never having experienced theater in a 400-seat outdoor amphitheater, I’m amazed how I can hear every word without amplification. True to Aristophanes, Culture Clash keeps the comedy topical, and my New Yorker date doesn’t get 90% of the L.A. references, which is 80% of the play. Also, after 60 minutes of this 90-minute show, my vertebrae give out. Afterward, an old couple thanks the Getty usher for directing them to the rear row of this mini-stadium, where the seats have backs. Three days later, it’s a 10-mile trip eastward to downtown’s Music Center for the L.A. Opera’s opener, “L’elisir d’amore.” After last year’s first night “Il Trittico,” directed by William Friedkin and Woody Allen, the Donizetti warhorse is a letdown thanks to an old production starring a couple of La Scala singers who don’t make me regret having never visited Milan. The following day’s offering couldn’t be more different, and it’s a mere three miles from my apartment. Joe DiPietro’s “Fucking Men,” a clever takeoff on “La Ronde,” is the scribe’s gay answer to his “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” When I take my seat, a white slip of paper falls out of the playbill. Has an actor cancelled? No, it’s DiPietro’s bio. The theater forgot to include the playwright’s curriculum vitae. And they say screenwriters aren’t respected. A few miles to the west is Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse, which opens Sept. 16 with a new play by “Weeds” writer Blair Singer. Like most of the theatergoing world, I missed the classic bad play “Moose Murders,” but I can say with pride that I’ve seen “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas,” directed by John Rando, who gave me my fave bad tuner, “Dance of the Vampires.” Who alive has seen both “Moose” and “Modine”? My bet is that “Modine” is more god-awful simply because it features Modine playing himself as a grade-D star. That conceit plays itself out by intermission and there’s no reason to stay for act two other than to see how much worse it can get. It does. The best worst joke comes when Modine confuses the female character’s incontinence for vaginal lubrication. And yes, the alpacas (puppeteers in seven-foot-tall costumes) do screw on stage. With hopes that “Modine,” will become a camp classic like “Showgirls,” the Geffen now showcases the ultra-bad reviews in its ads. Too bad you can’t Netflix a play for $2.50. Going from the ridiculous to the sublime, I see Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” a great new play that has deservedly received three nearly simultaneous productions, at Woolly Mammoth, Yale Rep and the Kirk Douglas Theater, where it opens Sept. 20. Only at the Kirk Douglas does the theater’s namesake sit front-row center for the West Coast preem in Culver City, a town that my New Yorker date refers to as “like the Hamptons,” which she means in a good way. It’s a seven-mile drive and Gurira’s play is worth several miles more. Its subject — female soldiers in Liberia — recalls Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” and “Eclipsed” more than holds its own against that Pulitzer Prize winner. The next few days, my Honda Civic turns into a yo-yo making the 16-mile stretch between Westwood and downtown L.A. On Sept. 23, it’s back west to see Annette Bening, the big ticket at UCLA Live’s production of “Medea.” Bening brings her patently contempo, ironic approach to this murderous mom, and Euripides just as defiantly resists those charms. Director Lenka Udovicki does know how to burn children to great theatrical effect, and her setting of sand, corrugated iron huts and crumbling walls is attractive in a post-apocalyptic way. Which is more than one can say for Achim Freyer’s take on Wagner’s “Siegfried,” which unveils at the Music Center three days later. This production is just plain ugly, as were Freyer’s “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walkyrie” from last season. Even though “Siegfried” takes place in an enchanted forest, Freyer offers a black scruffed-up raked stage with a bunch of LED light-sticks littered about. When those tubes change colors or burn out, it’s impossible to tell if it’s by design or if the things just short-circuited. Worse, Freyer follows the John Doyle approach and stages every scene as if it were readers’ theater. The singers park and bark and their emotion is conveyed by the spinning of the turntable. Not all is lost. Conductor James Conlon makes the score come alive — for all five hours. While John Treleaven isn’t much of a Siegfried, Alan Cumming plays Alan Cumming to perfection in his cabaret “I Bought a Blue Car Today” on Sept. 29, and he turns the Geffen’s second stage into the old Reno Sweeney at its best. Back in downtown to see “Parade” at the Mark Taper, I run into the “Siegfried” posters on the Music Center plaza and, after seeing Alfred Urhy and Jason Robert Brown’s musical, I think of Wagner’s term “music drama,” which describes “Parade” perfectly. This 1913 tale of Leo Frank, the only Jew in America ever to be lynched, in 1913, is great theater but not a toe-tapper, and Rob Ashford directs an accomplished, eclectic ensemble that includes “Grey’s Anatomy’s” T.R. Knight, London’s Lara Pulver (from the recent Donmar production) and Broadway’s Michael Berresse, Christian Hoff and Charlotte d’Amboise. Having experienced the travel that L.A. theater necessitates, I now know why my friends in New York’s outer boroughs don’t visit Broadway very often. It’s a schlep.