BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITIES – Don't Count Out LA Theater!

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!!!

New York City.  London.  Los Angeles.

All great cities, right?

Two of the three are known as great theater (or theatre) cities.  Which ones are they?

“Duh,” you say.   London has the West End, New York has Broadway, LA has… the Ahmanson, the Geffen and a lot of 99 seat theaters that require street parking.

But hey, not so fast.  There’s more to the story than that.

15 months ago, a play I c0-wrote was produced at a Fringe theatre in London.  It was exciting to have a play in London, but the truth is that 99-seat theatre there is not all that different from 99-seat theater here.  The big difference is how much theatre mattered there, how seriously people took the art form.  There were ads in the Underground for literary fiction and experimental plays!  No one in the tube looked at his or her phone; instead they read actual newspapers and books!  The run of our play was sold out, and audiences seemed to take the subject matter very much to heart.  I was delighted to find how both professional people (doctors, lawyers, academics) and regular folk (shopkeepers, salespeople) made going to theatre a part of their daily routine.  I found this to be true of the older generation in New York City too.  In Los Angeles, not so much.

On the other hand, the critical establishment in London seems to be a carry-over from the 19th century.  Literally.  The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written a brilliant one-man play, St. Nicholas, in which a powerful theatre critic falls in with a group of vampires. I always took this as fiction, but maybe there’s more to it, as there are SO MANY critics, and several write as if they still live down the street from Dickens and must protect the King’s English from the incursions of the modern world.

An art supply store not far from Picadilly Square

The truth is, the British theatre is in terrible trouble because of the terrible British economy (Brexit, remember?).  I sincerely hope they find their way out of their present dilemma… and are able to whip up a new batch of critics.  Maybe some women for a change?  And some men with a modicum of humility and a sense of humor about what they do.  Regardless, the spirit of creativity lives on in London, and I look forward to having another play there someday soon.  But the idea that the British have some kind of superior knowledge of how to make theatre… no.  The one play I was able to afford to see there was LABYRINTH by Beth Steel at the Hampstead Theatre, a dark comedy-thriller depicting a Wall Street banking firm in the 1970s hoping to make a killing by buying up Latin-American debt.  The staging was dazzling, the energy was unflagging, and it worked well on the level of spectacle.  But it was difficult to care much about any of the bankers or the journalists who covered them, as both were equally corrupt.  I thought the playwright made a mistake in portraying some of the bankers as literal devils, seducing the innocents into their own cozy version of hell.  It made judging them all too easy.

The Company of Junk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In his play JUNK – which started at the La Jolla Playhouse and recently opened on the Lincoln Center mainstage in NYC – Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar was able to avoid allowing the audience to make any such easy or simplistic moral judgments as he moves the story forward a decade to the mid-1980s, dramatizing the rise and fall of Junk Bonds in the character of Robert Merkin (reportedly based on the trader Michael Milkin).  Merkin is young and brilliant and eager to elbow his way to the top of the investment world.  He has discovered how to do so using the weapon of “debt” instead of net worth.  The production, again, works best on the level of spectacle, as director Doug Hughes makes brilliant use of the huge theater space at the Vivian Beaumont.  But the people in this drama, while not reduced to stereotypes of good and evil, are still playing out a story that becomes more familiar and predictable as it goes along.  That is, it succeeds as a thesis about how the values of capitalism have been undercut by the manipulators of Debt to the point that money itself has lost its meaning, its purpose.  But it hasn’t made this feel particularly interesting or original.  This is an important story, but I’d honestly rather read about it in a book.  While Akhtar certainly knows how to communicate the dramatic issues using the banker’s lingo, I’m not sure he’s telling us anything we haven’t heard said more memorably in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money or in Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money.  

Scott Golden as “Homer”

While Los Angeles may not have the artistic heritage of London or the Wall Street-inspired sense of theater as big business that New York City can boast, it does provide an excellent environment for a company of actors to create the kind of instant sense of community that Off-Off-Broadway used to specialize in (for example, The Open Theater‘s production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent) before it priced itself out of such experiences.  But witness the Sacred Fools production of Annie Washburn’s brilliant, MR BURNS – A Post-Electric Play for a 2017 update of such an experience. Director Jaime Robledo starts out by putting us, the audience, in the center of a post-apocalyptic tragedy along with the actors, and his inventiveness never relents as he and his actors bring this key work of our time to vivid life.

Tracey A. Leigh and Emily Clark

This play originated at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC and then went to Playwrights Horizons in NYC, which is where I first saw it.  The play received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, so there was a great clamor for tickets.  But the Playwrights Horizons stage is a proscenium, which proved far from ideal.  Also, the play is written in three very distinct sections, which had to be presented there with two lengthy intermissions, so that set changes could be made.  I recall having an argument about the play with a well-known actress (who shall go unnamed) who was sitting next to me and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  “This is boring as crap,” she kept murmuring.  She stayed through the first intermission but then headed for the hills (or Joe Allen’s bar) at the second intermission.  Which was a true shame, since the last section is among the most remarkable writing I’ve seen from any play in the last decade.

Eric Curtis Johnson and Tracey A Leigh

One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production is that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they are able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This is absolutely ideal for Ms Washburn’s play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn’t before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which is, quite simply, what this production is as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It’s unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I’m going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as “Bart” and Eric Curtis Johnson as “Mr Burns” just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn’t think possible.  All that I can say in return is “brava!” and “bravo!”  You completely blew my mind.

The production has just been EXTENDED to Dec. 9!  Hurray!  I cannot even begin to describe the pleasures that await you in (click here) this production.  And unlike all those bankers, I wouldn’t give you a raw deal.  (And even if I did, tickets are only $15 – less than a movie!)


Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.