Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

New King of L.A.: A Monarch Massages the Media

In recent posts, I've brought up the term watershed (in relation to August Wilson's completion of his 10-play cycle) and discussed theatre in L.A.

Well, there couldn't be a clearer watershed moment for L.A. theatre than now. Gordon Davidson, father of theatre in Los Angeles, has retired, and Michael Ritchie, formerly of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has replaced him.

Davidson is a hard act to follow, and that cliche phrase seems like such an under-statement it's made me giggle. Davidson was -- is -- a decent director, but not an inspiring one. But he is -- well, I guess, was -- a great producer, someone who built multiple institutions and fostered many careers and projects (including a small one called "Angels in America"). I've said it before, many times, and I'll say it again -- our regional theatres are in the midst of a leadership transition, and nothing defines this as well as what's happening at L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, which controls 3 theatres, the large Ahmanson, the mid-size Mark Taper Forum, and the small (and new) Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Indeed, if there's an existing monarch in American regional theatrics, this position is it. Ritchie has been crowned the King of L.A. Theatre.

Gil Cates at the Geffen is cringing at that comment -- he's so connected (he produces the Oscars) he cringes even at things he doesn't hear. Cates has managed to build a second regional theatre in the city, and kudos to him for doing so. L.A. has proved plenty big enough to support it, and he too is trying to start a second stage. Still, I can't think of a city where so much theatrical power is concentrated in a single person's hands.

Ritchie has been busy this past week meeting with the media. He's got big interview/features in both the L.A. Times ( a subscription site) and the N.Y. Times. He's discussing his first selections for new seasons. You can see the picks for the Ahmanson here and the Taper here.

For the Taper, he's starting with Mamet's newest, "Romance." (For the very mixed reviews of this, check out the divergent opinions of Michael Feingold and Ben Brantley.) At the Ahmanson, he's doing a huge revival of the 1935 epic "Dead End" by Sidney Kingsley. OK, I'm intrigued. Bold choice, and yet, since Ritchie produced it before at Williamstown with the same director, it's also a safe choice, in the sense that he knows what he's getting. In fact, it's been used to launch a new artistic directorship before, when said helmer, Nicholas Martin, used it as the beginning of his tenure at Boston's Huntington. (See Boston Phoenix critic Carolyn Clay's glowing review here.)

Ritchie seems a man not afraid to follow as well as lead. When something works, he's gonna do it again. It's worth remembering that he's dealt with a big legacy before too. Williamstown was Nikos Psacharopolous's baby, built from scratch. Although there were other leaders in between Nikos's death and Ritchie's arrival, he was the first who managed to turn the corner into a new era for the theatre.

Ritchie's got a hard job -- it's not easy being King. Potential lines of criticism for his season selections are really obvious for anyone who knows Los Angeles: these lists are pretty white-bread. Only a new Culture Clash play -- they're a terrific Latino theatre comedy troupe -- represents the diversity of the city. I agree with Ritchie that art comes before politics -- he's blatantly apolitical -- but I assure you he'll be getting an earful about the unrepresented, including from his own staff. That said, he hasn't yet scheduled the Kirk Douglas season.

The dance of a new artistic director and a new audience is a fascinating, and under-explored, one. This one is even more fascinating than most.