You know that moment in “Tonight” from West Side Story when the love-besotted Maria can’t stop singing Tony’s name as much as he can’t stop singing hers?
Every year about this time, the LA Times sings its own arias about Tony ““ but it’s the awards, not the character, that fascinate the Times so intensely.
Appearing in this morning’s print edition of the Times Calendar section, in the wake of last night’s Tony ceremony, were five Tony-centric articles, two related sidebars and 12 photos, with a thirteenth photo on the front page of the entire newspaper. Online at the Times Culture Monster site — a slide show with 55 photos from the Tony ceremony.
Of course other Tony articles preceded the day of the big event itself ““ all on behalf of covering the awards ceremony for one segment of the theater community in a city that’s roughly 2,500 miles from LA.
Yes, I know, Broadway is the center of the American commercial theater industry, and sometimes Tony awards influence the decisions of nonprofit companies as well. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say they have a “huge effect” on the mostly-nonprofit LA theater, as Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote last Friday, perhaps in an attempt to help justify the Times’ Tony addiction.. Large swaths of LA theater are largely untouched by Tony hype.
As I wrote last year, much of the impetus for the Times excess probably comes from the fact that this is the only theater award ceremony on national television. This monopoly tends to feed the mistaken notion that the Tonys somehow represent American theater in general instead of the shows on certain contracts within a relatively tiny geographical area. Rather than challenge that misconception, the Times has chosen to re-inforce it. I’d guess this decision is primarily about TV and the size of the audience that watches TV, compared to the size of the theater audience.
I wouldn’t mind so much the way the Times treats the Tonys, if it devoted more than the slightest token attention to the theater awards in its own city.
My favorite Times mention of this year’s Tonys was in a letter to the editor that appeared in print on Sunday, from Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. He begins very politely — “In the Times’ big pre-Tony features [June 3] I share Charles McNulty’s enthusiasm for the abundance of strong new plays on Broadway and appreciate the huge photo spread highlighting standout performances by New York actors.”
But then he asks the question about the elephant in the room:
“When will the Los Angeles Times shine its theater spotlight more on its own home city and start giving equal space and attention to theater in Los Angeles?
“Our own LA Ovation Awards get barely a mention in the Times each year.”
Kudos to Sachs, but it would be even better if civilians who are interested in LA theater ““ not actual participants in it ““ would ask these same questions in the months preceding the Tonys, or in the weeks preceding the Ovation Awards ceremony each year.
The Times Tony orgy tends to perpetuate the absurd but alarmingly common notion that Angelenos should go to New York to partake of exciting theater.
In her review of the Tonys as TV this morning, Times television critic Mary McNamara wrote: “We may not have seen most or any of the nominated plays and performances, but gosh, the numbers and clips look terrific and everyone seems so genuinely delighted with the collective work that it’s difficult not to wonder what the fares to New York are like these days.”
Gosh and gee whiz — let’s also tally the cost of New York room and board and the sky-high Broadway tickets themselves and see how much we can spend, when we could have seen something equally as interesting for a tiny fraction of those costs, right here in LA.
The Times sponsored an online chat this morning, devoted to still more Tony post-mortems, hosted by McNulty and Times reporter David Ng. In a half-hour, it attracted a total of five outside participants. In comments near the end of the session, even the Gotham-centric McNulty acknowledged that perhaps the attention paid to the Tonys is just a tad over-the-top:
“I love them. But I think too much of the American theater is geared toward them. There’s been too much consolidation. It is theater’s biggest night — and should be. But their centrality has a downside.”
Of course it really isn’t the American theater that’s geared too much toward the Tonys as much as it’s the coverage of the American theater by the LA Times.
POST-9/11 JITTERS: Just as the Tony ceremony began yesterday in New York, I was in downtown LA at LATC’s Theatre 2, watching Yussef El Guindi’s arresting play Language Rooms. This particular room should have been packed. I’m hardly alone in my belief that this play creates the kind of excitement mentioned above, the kind of excitement that too many people feel that they have to fly to New York for. This production of Language Rooms is in the LA Times Critics’ Choices list, placed there by free-lance critic F. Kathleen Foley. That’s a designation that used to mean something in terms of box office.
The room was not packed, however. There were only 10 of us in the audience, inside a venue that seats 298. And this is a production on an Actors’ Equity contract ““ in other words, it’s not one of those 99-Seat Plan productions that have occasionally used this same space, with areas of the theater roped off so as to keep attendance under 100. This means that the producers ““ the Bay Area-based Golden Thread Productions and Latino Theater Company ““ are probably taking a bath.
What a loss ““ but it might be rectified before the play is scheduled to close on June 24.
El Guindi creates an interrogation room in some unknown location in which US agents are questioning terrorism suspects, in 2005.This sounds grim, but the first half of the play is in fact a sharply observed satire of the office politics behind the scenes at this outpost, which is presumably on foreign soil.
The center’s two Muslim “translators” ““ actually interrogators who speak Arabic ““ are feeling uneasy about whether they fit in, with Nasser (William Dao) advising Ahmed (James Asher) that he shouldn’t have skipped the office Super Bowl party. Their African American supervisor Kevin (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) gives Ahmed ominously mixed signals about his future with the company. As they talk, everybody is aware that cameras might be recording everything they say.
Meanwhile, outside the office, we also see monologues from an older Egyptian immigrant to the US, Samir (Terry Lamb), talking about his experiences as an immigrant. We soon realize that Ahmed is Samir’s largely estranged son.
Just before intermission, the play suddenly acquires a lot more gravitas. A prisoner is brought in for interrogation by Ahmed. It’s”¦(spoiler alert ““ but come on, if there were only 10 people at the Sunday matinee, this somewhat ambiguously titled play obviously needs some help in communicating why it’s a must-see) yes, it’s Samir, Ahmed’s own father. The play suddenly becomes a gripping father-son drama as well as a satirical portrait of a frightened America. Think Pinter ““ but this play is more accessible than most of the late playwright’s later works.
Everything about Evren Odcikin’s staging hums on all cylinders. Designer Mikiki Uesigi keeps the title rooms spartan and sterile. Now, it’s time for a larger LA audience to check out these provocative Rooms.
Language Rooms, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 2, 514 S. Spring St., downtown LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes June 24. thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Language Rooms production photos by David Allen Studio
Language Rooms isn’t the only play in LA right now that reflects on post-9/11 fears. Theatre Tribe has finally brought Catherine Butterfield’s The Sleeper into the big city (the Laguna Playhouse presented it in 2006). It’s a wild ride, now set explicitly in LA, but still set in the year 2002 ““ when anxieties were at their peak.
The Sleeper has no intermission, and it stays on the level of sharply observed satire, without advancing into deeper waters as does Language Rooms. But it’s quite a yarn ““ about a mom (Mandy Levin) who is driven into an affair with her son’s math tutor (Benjamin Mathes), only to start wondering whether he might be a “sleeper” terrorist. Director Stuart Rogers and a team of big-name designers keep The Sleeper and its audience awake at all times.Print