Friday, June 10, 2011

Examining Good and Bad.


While waiting for tech stuff to be done yesterday in rehearsal I sat out on the nicely appointed wooden porch off the side of the theater chatting amiably with a couple of the other cast members. One was my buddy RD Call, a wonderful actor with whom I share the stage in this new play we're mounting, The Interlopers (Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles, June 17 thru July 23). As often happens with actors, we began talking about past performances, on both screen and stage, that we've admired over the years. RD has been around the block a few times in this wacky business out here in LA.

In any event, it turns out RD ran across Brando a few times in various capacities over the years. He told a few great stories about meeting him, Brando's singular eccentricities, his effect on other actors when they met him; I was enthralled, of course, being the Brando-phile that I am.

It's very telling when you meet and work with other actors that have the same sensibilities about what's 'good' work and what's 'bad' work. It encourages me. The first theater company I worked with when I moved out here was not quite like that. Whenever I spoke to the artistic director there and the conversation drifted to the same subject, he began to speak rather worshipfully of the work of 'the great Carol Channing in Dolly!" or 'the amazing Gwen Verdun in Damn Yankees!" Both perfectly nice performances, I'm sure, but not exactly what I'd characterize as life-changing. I began to suspect it might not be a good fit.

It's important to be on the same page in this business, to work with like-minded people. Not that it, ultimately, changes anything, but it's nice to have the same reference points. With this guy I would mention Brando ("Oh, he got so FAT!") or maybe Olivier ("He spoke so FAST!") or perhaps Richard Burton ("Liz Taylor was DIVINE, wasn't she?") and it just didn't quite hold the same gravitas for us both. Again, not that it matters when the rubber finally meets the road and the houselights dim on opening night...good work is good work, regardless of one's personal convictions.

Last night I was in bed early because my neck and shoulders were very sore due to an unfortunate traffic mishap earlier in the day. But my wife shares the same sense of nostalgia when it comes to classic film and iconic performances so she stayed up watching that old chestnut, Towering Inferno, on one of the uninterupted cable channels. She hadn't seen it for some two decades and was fascinated with the gaggle of star power in it. And I must admit, although a fairly forgetable movie, it is interesting to see the likes of Newman and Bill Holden and Steve McQueen handle the stilted dialogue like the great professionals they were. Newman, who always had a finely-tuned ear for crap did a lot of angst-ridden eye-shutting throughout, tilting his head upwards toward the heavens, eyes tight shut, and sort of whispering his lines as though maybe that would help change the fact that they were nearly unutterable in their idiocy. It's a valiant effort.

As I was sitting out with RD it became apparent we were both big fans of the stunning mini-series in the late eighties, Lonesome Dove. In fact, RD came damn close to actually doing it. He was up for a large role in it, but upon being offered it, had to turn it down due to another film committment. All these years later, he said he still regrets it. Can't blame him. It is, in my opinion, a watershed moment in television, and one would be hard-pressed to find a better performance than the one Tommy Lee Jones delivers in that piece. Simply awesome work. Not to mention Duvall's Emmy-winning turn.

So I always find a bit of comfort knowing that someone else sees what I see. It's probably a slight character flaw in me, but I tend to choose friends, like anyone else I suppose, based on our shared perceptions.

I remember shortly after I arrived in LA, I was invited to this staged reading. The aforementioned artistic director highly recommended it, saying he 'wept uncontrollably' throughout when he'd seen it in rehearsal. So Angie and I trotted over to give it a look. It was, of course, appallingly bad. In fact, it was my first inkling of why theatre in this town has gotten such a bad name. Simply jaw-droppingly awful. We sat there in a state of tharn, like Richard Adams' rabbits in Watership Down. I, too, fought the urge to weep uncontrollably although for entirely different reasons, I'm sure. In retrospect, it was probably good I'd seen it, however.

I rememeber turning to my wife later that night and saying, "You know, I may have a little trouble getting my work done here." And, of course, that turned out to be uncomfortably true.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "Sports, politics and religion are the three passions of the badly educated." He might have included theatre in that sentence. My point being just because I don't like something doesn't mean someone else will. Theatre, like music, is entirely subjective. As is film, as is television, as is dance, as is any artform, really. And that's the miracle of it, in the final analysis. I recall in chrystaline detail seeing Brando in Last Tango in Paris when I was an undergrad and being stunned, absolutely stunned, with his performance. Yet the young actor watching it with me, a good friend of mine, said, "Oh, I just don't buy that young, beautiful girl getting the hots for that overweight older guy." To my way of thinking he had missed the point entirely, yet it was his opinion and perfectly valid. Subjective. The film, Berolucci's best in my opinion, was well into the realm of impressionism and consequently his take on it was every bit as sensible as mine.

As I get older I have less passion or patience for the discussion of art; what is and what isn't, that is to say. As a young man in New York I would spend endless hours at various coffee shops in that city arguing vehemently with friends about what I thought was good work and bad work. Today, I'd just as soon have an emergency root canal done. One artist's path is simply not always shared. And it took me awhile, but I've come to believe that's a beautiful thing. The legendary Carol Channing's portrayal of Dolly Levi may only be amusing and diverting entertainment for me, but it is life-affirming and miraculous to someone else. Marlon Brando's slice of genius in On the Waterfront may be the very reason I do what I do, but pedestrian and artistically unsatisfying for someone else.

And that, I believe, is a good thing. A very good thing.

See you tomorrow.