Casting About for Excuses

Last fall Coconut Grove Playhouse was all set to conclude its 1995-96 season with Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. But at the last minute the show's New York City-based producers booked the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on a 1996-97 national tour, precluding its being presented at regional theaters such as the Playhouse until the tour's end. In an effort to snare an exciting contemporary piece to fill the Playhouse season's final slot, producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman weighed several options but refused to commit to anything until he knew if one play in particular would be available. Earlier this month he finally booked Death Defying Acts, which will open at the Playhouse on April 9 and run through April 28 in its first post-off-Broadway production. This series of one-acts by David Mamet, Elaine May, and Woody Allen closes this month at New York's Variety Arts Theatre after almost a full year's run.

"One of the reasons we kept the options open for as long as we did," Mittelman explains, "was because I was waiting to see what Death Defying Acts decided to do. I know that certain shows, because of the timing of their runs in New York, hit a certain spot and it's impossible for them to tour because tours get booked much earlier. So we were able to get the rights to [this] while it was actually still playing in New York."

Mamet's two-character drama An Interview heads up the trio; it features an attorney who unravels when his questionable practices are investigated by a dispassionate examiner. In May's comedic Hotline, a prostitute reaches a rookie counselor when she calls a suicide hotline. Rounding out the triple bill, Allen's Central Park West pits a woman and her best friend against each other as they vie for the attentions of the woman's three-timing husband. Casting has yet to be confirmed. "I'm going to emphasize a lot of opportunities for local actors in it," Mittelman asserts, "because my sense of the talent pool of local actors is that they could do very well in the show, and I think there's a nice match for quite a number of them."

Roundly criticized in the past by the press and by the South Florida theater community for not drawing on local talent for his productions, Mittelman freely admits he looked elsewhere for actors and directors during his initial years here: "There was a lot of pressure on me when I first got down here [in 1985] to establish the Playhouse in the minds of the greater Miami area as a unique place, and to find a way to make it economically viable. To do that I needed to deal a lot more with casting from London and New York and Los Angeles." Recently, however, he has taken some baby steps toward using Miami-area actors. For example, while the highly acclaimed production of Death of a Salesman, which just finished its run at the Playhouse, featured Hal Holbrook, Elizabeth Franz, and a host of other out-of-towners in major roles, local actors were cast in minor roles and will travel with the play on its current national tour. And the entire cast of last year's Falling Fidel was local.

"As the Playhouse has gotten stronger and as the talent pool has gotten stronger, and as some of the talent pool has built a following, my ability to mix [local and national actors] just grows," Mittelman contends. (And yet, arguably, a few supporting characters in Salesman and a local cast for Fidel A a play about Miami written by a South Floridian that would have been absurd to cast nationally A hardly constitutes a major outreach to the local theater community.) Mittelman also hopes someday "to convince some of the local 'stars' to do a play here. I'd love to see Cher. She's acted on-stage. Madonna has too."

A glance at the lineup for the ongoing season and the just-announced 1996-97 season suggests that Mittelman has also responded to accusations of lightweight programming. Along with serious work such as Death of a Salesman and Death Defying Acts, Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic Waiting for Godot opens on March 12, marking the 40th anniversary of its U.S. debut at the Playhouse in January 1956. And next season's offerings include Albee's 1962 masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles A or Indiscretions, as it was retitled for American audiences when it played New York last year, where it garnered nine Tony Award nominations. Cocteau's farce chronicles the exploits of a family that cares little about personal or sexual boundaries.

"What has created the most positive reactions," Mittelman speculates, "has been the insertion of some of the more recognizable titles that you would call part of the classic genre, whether it be Godot or Salesman or Virginia Woolf." He claims that he avoided programming such works at first for a good reason: "I kind of shied away from [the classics] when I got down here, because my predecessor Jose Ferrer had been excoriated for doing that. If people look really carefully, they'll see that what they say was so lighthearted wasn't. I think people have exaggerated some of the very lighter pieces and tried to paint a picture that that's all that was going on here. If you read the seasons to me, they've always had a balance to them that represented quality theater and a range for an audience." (It's hard to resist such a leading suggestion. A perusal, as suggested by Mittleman, of the Playhouse's last five seasons indeed points up provocative productions like John Guare's House of Blue Leaves and David Mamet's Oleanna. But they are outnumbered by easy-listening selections such as Luis Rego's I Love My Wife, starring Desi Arnaz, Jr.; Buz Dohan and Bruce Vilanch's Too Short to Be a Rockette, starring Pia Zadora; and Barry Creyton's Double Act, with James B. Sikking of Hill Street Blues fame.)

In truth, great theater has a track record of not putting people in the Playhouse's seats. "Regardless of the [critical] success of Salesman," Mittelman notes, "it still only sold about 40 percent of the number of tickets as [last year's] Bermuda Avenue Triangle. So despite the greatest reviews known to man plus Hal Holbrook plus TV, radio, posters, and a four-week run, it still did not sell out."

Mittelman attributes this state of affairs to the appeal of television stars such as Bea Arthur, who headlined Triangle; the public loves seeing such celebrities up close and personal. Besides, he adds, Triangle "had the patina of 'You'll have a good time.' Salesman and any of these serious works challenge an audience to make a commitment. And when you have people who unfortunately have not had drama as a part of their required studies in grammar school and high school and college, and have not had the theatergoing habit, it's an extra difficult task for them to actually go to the theater. I want to get them into the theater on their way to South Beach or on their way to the clubs in Coconut Grove."

In the meantime: Cher or Madonna, if you read this, give Mittleman a call.


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