Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1990
Nightmare on Elm Street . It was 1988, and the Bowery Theatre had been in existence for eight years, playing in a quirky little underground space on Elm Street . Ralph Elias was brought in to direct Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, later nominated by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle as Best Production of the year. Three weeks after the opening, the Bowery’s artistic director, Kim McCallum, resigned; he’d been off in New Mexico for some time anyway. One month later, the Bowery Theatre was notified that it was losing its playing space. Ralph Elias became artistic director of a leaderless crew with no home port.
By 1989, he had turned the ship around. The Bowery was in a brand new 88-seat venue, the Kingston Playhouse, which was linked to the Kingston Hotel. And the Bowery Theatre became the smallest professional, Equity house in the country. There followed a succession of hits: Italian-American Reconciliation, What the Butler Saw and Teibele and her Demon. “The Bowery Theatre,” crowed L.A. Times critic Nancy Churnin, “continues to astonish.”
In these troubled times for the arts, the Bowery’s mere continued existence is astonishing. Last year, the theater more than doubled its budget, and earned 65% of its revenue through box office take alone — without any subscription sales. Ralph Elias thinks he’s “walking the edge all the time.”
Going Equity when the Bowery did was clearly a risk. “There’s no such thing as stasis for any artist,” says Elias in his earnest, intense manner. “That’s what an acting teacher of mine used to say. If you’re not going forward, you’re going backward.” So go forward they did. And now, they’re opening Speed-the-Plow, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. This will be the first San Diego production and the second in California (South Coast Repertory Theatre was first), only one year after the play’s successful Broadway run.
“We decided to go for the quality,” Elias maintains. “We wanted to compete for the rights to current plays. Without Equity status, we’d never be doing Speed-the-Plow.””
Some critics of the Bowery would like to see them put their money elsewhere. Like into sound insulation. Three walls of the theater, which was formerly a branch office of National University , are glass. During any given production, one has to cope with seat-tremors from the trolley and all manner of unsettling street noise, ranging from passing musicians to brawling inebriates.
Is there some sort of conspiracy of intrusion working its insidious evil on San Diego theaters? Landing jets strafe the Starlight Bowl. There’s a hum-bug living in the sound system of the SDSU experimental theater. And at the Lowell Davies Festival Stage, the spine-chilling shriek of peacocks makes your neck-hairs bristle.
Elias has every intention of remediating his theater’s problem, whenever he has the spare cash. “It’s at the top of the priority list for capital improvements,” he assures unnerved patrons. “But for now, the money goes toward high-level productions, not production values.” And, Elias claims, “we do it all with mirrors. We have 2 1/2 positions for the work of six. But our choice is to put our money and effort into the artistic work and building a body of work, not building an organization.”
At first, Elias and Managing Director Mickey Mullany were the organization. In 1988, Allison Brennan, professional actress and Elias’s wife, was named Development Director. Since then, she has increased granted and contributed income fivefold. Both are actors by training; they met playing husband and wife, which they did again last year, to hilarious effect, in What the Butler Saw.
Elias was all set to direct Speed-the-Plow; then he decided to step onstage and act in this controversial black comedy about the wacko wheeling-dealing of Hollywood . “It’s Mamet’s best play,” according to New York/L.A. actor/director/playwright Frank Dwyer, who directs the Bowery production. “It’s a very far-ranging, trenchant and important play. It uses Hollywood as a means of explaining aspects of the nature of capitalism itself. There’s a kind of strangeness in these men whose lives concern making a product where the selling and the price are the issue, not the quality… These people aren’t just monsters; there’s something recognizable to all of us.”
“The play deals with manipulation, both conscious and unconscious,” says Elias. “Gould, the one who seems to be the most successful and cynical at the beginning, is taken advantage of as a naïf. The woman who seems to be naive does the best job of manipulation.”
Elias plays Gould, and Dwyer thinks “this will be a triumph for him. His performance will reveal this play. He’s in an unusual group of American actors with classical understanding, American energy and a British stillness. It will be a very funny evening. If the audience isn’t killing itself laughing, we’re not doing it right.”
(Speed-the-Plow runs from October 18 through December 9 at the Kingston Playhouse).
©1990 Patté Productions Inc.