The Kirk Douglas Theatre is a jewel in the crowd—a real destination in the midst of the fairly bustling and benign Culver City. I used to drive by that old Culver moviehouse when I had a job running errands around there, and it’s heartening for the preservation-minded that it’s retained that giant vertical “CULVER” signage on top. And it’s truly lovely inside, with a cozy, intent proscenium layout and a pleasingly vast stage that seems as deep as it is tall and wide. I would almost recommend seeing the show that’s opened there just to get a glimpse of it.
Or maybe not. The play that inaugurates the space is Chuck Mee’s A PERFECT WEDDING, and on so many levels it’s a bold, encouraging, ambitious choice. The huge cast is like a cross section of L.A. theatre talent from some of the town’s best ensemble companies, as well regional theatre familiars and semi-names. Bart DeLorenzo of the Evidence Room is the only other impresario in town I can think of who would have the taste and pull to put together such a cast—and, not coincidentally, many in the cast are ER alumni (and two, John Fleck and Leo Marks, are veterans of Mee plays there; Marks points out in his bio that this is his third, and Fleck of course was the morally ambidextrous Heiner Müller in ER’s triumphant THE BERLIN CIRCLE in 2000). And the play is a hearteningly multi-culti celebration of all the good things we value in these blue states: love, community, tolerance, sexual freedom.
Unfortunately in this case the designation “play” is generous. Mee’s way of making plays is always eclectic, demotic, and engaging; at his best he wears his questing intelligence lightly and retains a gift for playful effrontery. He has real wit not just as a wordsmith but as a theatrical writer—which is not the same as saying he has a particularly sturdy dramaturgical craft. His best works--Berlin Circle, Big Love--are high-wire acts that on the page “shouldn’t” work at all (a paradox that’s also often true of two 20th century writers Mee evokes, Chekhov and Brecht). The downside of this approach, especially at the rate Mee has been turning out plays, is that if he doesn’t keep all these balls in the air, the showmanship starts to look like shtick. That’s the case with too much of Wedding, which trots out a grab bag of Mee tricks—references and appropriations to classic texts, open and often provocative philosophizing, musical numbers, unexpected jokes buried in the darkest drama and vice versa, startling shifts in tone, passionate frenzy. These are all present in his best work (the aforementioned two), his good work (the underrated Summertime, at the Boston Court earlier this year), and his mediocrities (Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, which despite its lively production at the Evidence Room is just a series of dialogues, not a play, or his adaptations of The Oresteia and The Trojan Women, cobbled together into an ungainly evening of torture by mad hatter Matt Wilder at the Open Fist under the title Songs of Joy and Destitution in early 2003).
A Perfect Wedding is regrettably in the latter category. There are some lovely scenes and monologues here, and some pleasingly cheesy twists, but there are too many duds: a pitiful duet for two gravediggers, a series of full-cast scenes in which everyone pitches in their two cents, unbidden, in a sort of round-robin forum, and too many forced extremes in both directions, zany and somber. This is what my colleague Evan Henerson at The Daily News, in a review that refreshingly dissents from the generally positive consensus so far, aptly refers to as “anarchy on autopilot.” It reminds me of the way Robert Altman, a great American artist with a similarly chaotic, shoot-from-the-hip aesthetic, seems equally capable of masterpieces and utter dreck; it would seem to be an occupational hazard of working this way.
I was actually relieved when, about 20 minutes into a faltering second act, Mee just gave up on the play and delivered the wedding party the cast, and we, all came for. The climax and highlight is a vibrant dance number featuring Fleck and Jim Anzide as romantic leads lip-synching to “Chunari Chunari” from Monsoon Wedding while the cast does an engaging half-time-show version of a Bollywood dance number. (My familiarity with the song only made this sweeter, as I anticipated the entrance of the male voice, play-acted pricelessly by Anzide, after delighting in Fleck’s mincing take on the female part.) And I was moved by Leo Marks’ turn as the loser in the Midsummer-inspired lovers’ exchange—as much by his vulnerable performance as by his mere presence in these proceedings.
Indeed, just about everything about this kick-off production is inspiring in terms of where this new theatre’s aesthetic heart is. As someone who’s witnessed with a fair degree of heartbreak the hit-and-miss efforts at the Mark Taper Forum over the years, and after following many of the Taper’s more adventurous non-mainstage spinoffs—the New Works Festival and Taper, Too—I can’t overstate how significant this is. It means the Center Theatre Group gets it; it means that when Gordon Davidson’s often sluggish organization is freed a bit from the huge responsibility of programming at the Taper and the Ahmanson, the company is really going to go for it and program a real alternative on its second stage.
This sense of christening, of sending the good ship Douglas off on the right journey, is finally about all Perfect Wedding has to offer. A play about ceremonies that mark our lives, it’s ultimately a ceremonial offering itself. That’s not nothing, but it might not be worth a $40 ticket.