La Jolla Playhouse Stages Mamet's Classic 'Glengarry Glen Ross'
October 3, 2012 12:51 p.m.
Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. The La Jolla Playhouse has two plays on right now that are pertinent reflections on our times. . The first, Glen Gary, Glen Ross, explores the dynamics of what people resort to when their jobs are on the line, and the competition is intense. The second, Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir is an intimate 1-man show that delves into love from the perspective of a gay man. And our guest is Christopher Ashley, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse.
ASHLEY: Pleasure to be here.
ST. JOHN: Glen Gary, Glen Ross is a classic. I don't know if it ever goes out of style. But right now with the recession, it's particularly pertinent. Give us a synopsis.
ASHLEY: This is a play that I directed, and I've been wanting to do for most of the 25 years since I first saw it on Broadway. It's about a group of salesmen who are -- it takes place over about 24 hours, and they're biting and scrounging for every little morsel that they can amongst themselves. And it takes place in the 1980s at a time of real recession in the middle of a real estate bust, which kinds kind of familiar, huh?
ST. JOHN: It does!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: When you first saw it, what attracted you to it so much?
ASHLEY: I think it's one of the great plays written in my lifetime. It's extraordinarily well-constructed, the language is really vivid. It's what they call Mamet-speak. He writes in this very fragmented, interlocked way. It's kind of like jazz. And people speak and misspeak, and change their mind as they're talking. And it's thrilling to direct and watch.
ST. JOHN: That must be quite difficult to direct. You must be like a conductor.
ASHLEY: Exactly right. I was in a jazz band as a kid, and it feels very much like that. Very much what you're doing as a director is both the character work in terms of discovering these people and who they are, but also the musical work of constructing this language and making it musical and compelling and surprising and exciting.
ST. JOHN: How does appear to be the perfect time to be doing this production. Talk about why it seems so contemporary to you.
ASHLEY: I took over the La Jolla Playhouse about five years ago, and this was on my bucket list of the plays I really wanted to program and direct myself. But at the time, America was riding high, and it didn't seem like it pertained.
ST. JOHN: Ha!
ASHLEY: Since the crash of 2009, I've been looking for a moment to do it because it's very much about a moment like this one where there's not enough to go around. And it's really a critique of the American dream, and does anybody really win?
ST. JOHN: It is quintessentially American, isn't it? The competitive spirit. Do you see this as being a way to explore the ridiculous ways that people rise up?
ASHLEY: Absolutely. And I think the characters are riveting, although no one behaves well in the play.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ASHLEY: They all have very suspect motives, and they're all in it for themselves. But there's a real humanity in the play because they all need to feed their family. They're selling this land that no one wants in a time when no one has money to buy land anyway. And it's such a tight play, if you spend as much time as I have with it, there's not a line that goes wasted. Every single thing comes back in the second half of the play. It comes back around, it's really spare, really lean, and it is beautifully constructed. And in that way, it's like music again. It's like a beautifully constructed piece of music.
ST. JOHN: This had rave reviews, crackling with energy, a tight and tense production. What as a director was your goal of making it your own?
ASHLEY: It seemed like a great time to do this play. But I've also been really interested in doing it -- Mamet the's never been done at the playhouse. It also was originally written to be about a bunch of white guys in an office in Chicago. And because the play is now 30 years old, it seemed like it was a really great time to rethink how to cast it. So we cast it with a very diverse and multicultural cast, so it really looks like America. And that's been really, really exciting to work with this cast of -- many of them deeply steeped in Mamet the.
ST. JOHN: So they can handle the tight dialogue.
ASHLEY: Absolutely. And it's fiendishly difficult to memorize because nothing is ever straight ahead, nothing ever leads to the next thing. It's always winding around and circling itself and changing its mind. So I have incredible respect and admiration and almost awe for the actors who can hold this play in their brain.
ST. JOHN: And there is quite a bit of strong language.
ASHLEY: No question. And these are men who express themselves request profanity often. But there's also a kind of beauty to the understanding of how people speak, and the difficulties people go through. So I think it's very compassionate and very human, while it's really tough and often course.
ST. JOHN: Talk about the set and how it refects some of the themes in the play.
ASHLEY: One of the first things you do as a director when you think about a play, you get-together with the set designer and think about what does the audience see. And the set designer and I, this amazing man tamed Todd Rosenthal, our first discussion was about a fish tank that I had see in a Chinese restaurant. It opens in a restaurant, and the fish fighting amongst themselves, trapped in this artificial world that they don't know in the real. And it seemed like a great metaphor for the salesmen trapped in the word of these couple of leads, fighting for the few morsels, and you want to kind of yell at them, walk out the door! Change the rules! Get a new job! Do anything but what you're doing! And so there's actually an immense fish tank in the first act as well as there's a kind of billboard that hovers over the stage, which is a leftover poster from Jaws, the movie. So there is a real feeling of shark tank in this production. It was a real challenge for our production. The fish tank is thousands and thousands of pounds. So they've created an extraordinary solution to how you create a fish tank without all of that water, which I'm not going to tell you. You have to come see!
ST. JOHN: I was going to say! Can you tell us?
ASHLEY: No, it would be a spoiler. No spoilers.
ST. JOHN: Okay. So would you say this play is sort of an indictment of capitalism? Or not?
ASHLEY: I would! It's kind of ironic that in the years since this play was written, David Mamet the is actually sort of become quite a conservative political force. But yeah, I do think that this play is really critical of the assumptions underlying American business and who does it profit.
ST. JOHN: Interesting. Okay. Let's shift gears, and I'll remind you at the end of the segment where you can see this play. But we're going to talk about another one now. A 1-man show, it's another production that you're putting on. And it's taking place in a bar, right? Can you set the scene for us?
ASHLEY: It is. This is a program we have at La Jolla Playhouse called Without Walls, and the idea is we're doing plays not within the conventional bounds of a theatre, but out in the world. Site-specific theatre or work that's inspired by a place. And this is our third show in this series. And we're working our way toward doing a festival of this kind of work in the fall of 2013. The second took place all in cars. So it was two actors and audience members per play. And this one is set at martinis above 4th in Hillcrest. It's really -- it actually happens in martinis above 4th, and it's a play about events that happened at the Bon Soir, R theatre in Greenwich village in 1958, and it's very much about a moment when it was forbidden to express love between two men, and a guy who's doing a cabaret act in this bar who dares to talk about who he loves and what's happening in his life.
ST. JOHN: So this is called Sam Bendrix at the bon SOIR. What grabbed you about it?
ASHLEY: The author ever it is under commission from us, writing a new musical for us. And as we got into working together on this musical, he said I have this play that I really want you to read. I've been reading about your Without wall series, and I've always wanted to do this actually in a bar.
ST. JOHN: So you can have a drink while you're watching.
ASHLEY: Yes, drinks and food. And will food is extraordinarily food and reasonably priced. So I read it and really fell in love with it. I think it's incredibly -- it's a great score, a great central character, and it says a lot about how much the world has changed since 1958. And there's a lot of work left to do, but boy, have things changed since 1958.
ST. JOHN: Well, the lines for the gay community have shifted since then, but do you think this is a good reminder of the pain that can be caused by the prejudice that hopefully is disappearing at least among the younger generation?
ASHLEY: Yeah, I mean, clearly it's not gone. But I don't think you can move into the future if you don't have an understanding of your past. And I think the -- it was absolutely forbidden to be -- we used to be called the love that dare not speak its name. And people were really brave to be who they were and love who they loved despite the possibility of being beaten up and being jailed and losing their job and houses. There was a lot of brave people who made the world change and insisted on their civil rights and got us to the progress that has occurred so far. So I think actually that history is really, really important. And the great thing about this piece is there's nothing dry and historical about it. It's really romantic and vibrant, and it's an amazing score. And the central actor is charm on 2 feet. He is as charming as it's possible to be.
ST. JOHN: How might people know him?
ASHLEY: He was on a television series called brothers and sister, and he was one of the leads, and he's an extraordinary stage actor.
ST. JOHN: Throughout the act, there's a band on stage. There's actually music. What kind of music will people hear?
ASHLEY: There's coal porter, curt vile, there's Irving Berlin, Gershwin. If you love the American songbook, you're going to hear some great standards from it. Really beautifully performed. And the trio band is really killer. They're a fantastic band. And they also serve -- they act in it and have --
ST. JOHN: Roles.
ASHLEY: Starring points. They have roles. Let's hear a little bit of it.
(Audio Recording Played)
ASHLEY: It seems like a cabaret act which then transforms before your eyes into an extraordinary play.
ST. JOHN: And you can drink martinis throughout the show!
ASHLEY: Absolutely, as well as shrimp cocktails.
ST. JOHN: Now, what next steps do you have in mind for the Watt Walls series?
ASHLEY: I feel like you just threw it out in the gauntlet, I have to throw out good mixology. I love a play with a twist!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: What else have you got up your sleeve?
ASHLEY: We're working on a play set on a military base. We're working together with one of the writing faculty at UCSD. An extraordinary writer, Naomi Iizuka. And we're gearing up for a festival of 9 to 12 plays which we're doing together with the contemporary art museum. So it's going to be an explosion of site-specific theatre in the fall.
ST. JOHN: All right. There's a lot of buzz around your next production especially for fans of the band the Flaming Lips. The title of the production is your shimmy battles the pink robots.
ASHLEY: This is a brand-new musical. The story is -- YOSHIMI is a young artist facing the battle for her life. And there's a love triangle, it's her and two kind of competing boyfriends. And there's a whole science fiction aspect to it. The evil forces that are threatening to kind of engulf her are robots. Very, very up to the minute technology. Our whole shops have been around the chock doing R and D on what does a robot look like in this musical, and they fly and light up, and they're -- one of them is 14 feet high.
ST. JOHN: Does it look a bit like Japanese Anime?
ASHLEY: It certainly has some inspiration there. It is phantasmagorical, and it's an extraordinary rock score, if you're a fan of the flaming lips. This is going to be heaven for you. A lot of great artists from the past have come back to La Jolla Playhouse. KAMIKO, who was in one of our page to stages is back, Paul Nolan who was in Jesus Christ superstar is back in one of the leads, Tom Hewitt is back. So lots of great favorites from the past, extraordinary group of designers, and having Dez Mackinaw back has always been one of my goals. For most of the 25 year modern history of La Jolla Playhouse, he was the leader, he is so much of what is extraordinary about the playhouse. And it's great to have him back making a brand-new musical at the playhouse.
ST. JOHN: Now, that is going to start in November, right?
ASHLEY: It does, November through December.
ST. JOHN: We also spoke about, and I just should tell you where you can see the other two productions. Glen Gary, Glen Ross runs through October 21st at the playhouse, and Sam Bendrix runs through October 17th at martinis above 4th in Hillcrest.
ASHLEY: And if you're interested in exploring some more, this Monday we're having an audience engagement event at the playhouse at 7:00 where I'll be talking, and several of the cast members for Glen Gary, and several of the designers talking about how we put it together.
ST. JOHN: Good to know about. Thank you.