Tom Lazarus, Playwright, Talks About “The Princes Of Kings Road”

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Kings Road House, designed by Rudolph Schindler, 1922; image courtesy Ensemble Theatre/LA

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Austrian-born Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler were contemporaries with a profound influence on the development of LA’s early Modernism. They were also friends and business partners who became bitterly estranged in 1953. . . until 23 years later, when they found themselves by chance in  the same hospital room in Cedars  of  Lebanon Hospital. 

What might have transpired between the two ailing men in that hospital room?

That’s the fascinating subject of “The Princes of Kings Road,” a new play for Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA by writer/director Tom Lazarus, opening this weekend. 

It stars John Nielsen, Heather Robinson and Ray Xifo, it was produced by Stevie Stern Lazarus, and it will be performed in the Neutra-designed offices that are now Dion Neutra’s Neutra Institute and Museum  of  Silver Lake.

DnA spoke to Tom Lazarus about the play, without giving away the whole story. . .

Unbuilt design for the League of Nations Palace, by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra; image courtesy Ensemble Theatre/LA
Unbuilt design for the League of Nations Palace, by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra; image courtesy Ensemble Theatre/LA

DnA: “The Princes of Kings Road” is a very evocative title. What Kings Road and what Princes are we referring to?

Tom Lazarus: In the early 1920s Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra lived together in the house Schindler built, called the Schindler Case house (now the Kings Road House). And these two men were very brilliant architects. They were the people who invented modern architecture, and they are the Princes of Kings Road and they are iconic architects on a world stage but particularly in Los Angeles.

DnA: But how is it that they come together for this story?

TL: They have a history since childhood. They were born near each other in Vienna. Schindler was Neutra’s mentor; he brought Neutra to America, to Chicago where they worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Then Schindler came out to Los Angeles and brought Neutra with him and the house at Kings Road that Schindler had built was a two-family house. They worked together and lived together for three, four, five years and then had a really bitter falling out.

They didn’t see each other for 23 years. Schindler lays dying in the hospital when out of sheer coincidence Richard Neutra is wheeled into the hospital room.

And so your play is about that conversation that takes place in that hospital ward?

TL: Yes, that true incident is the jumping off point for the play. We know almost nothing of what actually happened in a room other than that there was German spoken and that there was laughter.

DnA: So what is your imagining of that conversation?

TL: My imagining is that they have 23 years of pent-up emotion, accusations, hurt, fear, just a huge amount of unreleased information and fears and anger and accusals and betrayals and that’s what they talk about. They talk about and feel and act out that story for us.

Kings Road House, designed by Rudolph Schindler, 1922; image courtesy Ensemble Theatre/LA

DnA: And does it end with a happy conclusion?

TL: Well, never liking to give away the end, I think the ending is really satisfying. In the one public reading that we had there were tears streaming down people’s faces.

DnA: Just let me back up to the real life story. You said that Schindler was in hospital because he was seriously ill. Did they both leave the hospital or did one or both of them pass?

TL: Rudolph Schindler was in the hospital with prostate cancer. Neutra came in with a stroke. Neutra left the hospital. Schindler never did.

DnA: Let’s go back to that time couple of decades before, where they’ve had this massive falling out. What did they fall out over?

TL: That’s what the play is about. There are three big elements in their past that they have their own perspective on and their own perceptions and their own hurt feelings.

DnA: And to the extent you can give the story away. . . was their split having to do with ideas about architecture or was it about some conflict in their personal lives? Was it about their competitiveness as architects?

TL: There are a number of moments in their lives together in terms of being chosen, of being selected, being favored and those moments that are historical and accurate that are depicted in the play are the drama of the play. This play imagines what they said to each other about them.

DnA:  I think one of those major turning points that you might be referring to is when Richard Neutra was selected by Phillip Johnson for a famous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on the so-called “international style” and Rudolph Schindler was passed over.

It’s something that clearly marks their careers in a most significant way and Neutra’s went on a fast trajectory upwards as a result.

TL: Absolutely correct, and for them to finally have a chance to air it out with each other and hopefully come to a point where they can accept who they are and what’s happened in their lives.

Lovell House, 1929, by Richard Neutra; image courtesy of Ensemble Theatre/LA
Lovell House, 1929, by Richard Neutra; image courtesy of Ensemble Theatre/LA

DnA: When this meeting in the hospital ward took place we were not yet at the point where Rudolph Schindler was having a kind of renaissance of interest. If you talk to people now who are interested in modernist architecture many will rate Schindler higher than Neutra in terms of his importance in Los Angeles architecture; but, when this meeting took place he hadn’t yet arrived at that sweet moment.

TL: That’s right, and he gets to voice that and he gets to tell him exactly how he feels about the arc of their lives. And his frustration and his dissatisfaction with the way he is perceived as to the way Neutra is perceived.

DnA: And does he make a case for why he ultimately is the better or more interesting architect?

TL: They don’t talk about their competitive styles, they’re trying to get past the twenty three years of bitterness that they have had.

I think they both understand the importance of each other’s work and one of the large parts of the play is about that. It’s about the voicing of the recognition of each other’s genius.

DnA: Do we revisit the time when Neutra and his wife lived with Schindler and his wife Pauline — their wives were collaborators with their spouses — and they all were living this wonderful bohemian lifestyle at the house in Kings Road designed by Rudolph Schindler?

TL: We do go back to that time. We reference the intelligentsia that was there and that this was really Vienna reborn in Los Angeles and that was a high point for them both in terms of Pauline being the driving force of Bohemia and the reluctance of Richard Neutra and his wife Dionne being not of the same fabric as Rudolph and Pauline and that was a built-in conflict. They talk about how they perceived each other in those days.

DnA: Because Richard Neutra and his wife were more square?

TL: Absolutely, and they joke about it. I mean, they can get to a place in this play where they enjoy their past and it’s not just all bitterness and estrangement and to see that arc of these characters, you know, it breaks your heart. It reaches us emotionally.

Part of my task is to popularize and dramatize architectural information and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

I used to work many years ago making educational films for Psychology Today magazine and we would take a hard difficult topic and figure out how do you make it palatable and entertaining and that’s a paradigm I’ve been in and that’s where I am in this place.

DnA: And this one presents you with the most fantastic interpersonal drama.

TL: Oh yeah, I mean I’ve written a lot of television, I’ve written a lot of movies and a lot of that involves killing and crime investigation — and here I can reach for human emotions and adult storytelling.

DnA: How did you find this story?

TL: My wife Stevie Stern Lazarus, the producer of this, and I were watching a documentary on Julius Shulman — I’m a big architecture fan — and in passing there was this very small moment that mentioned Neutra and Schindler were estranged for 23 years and by coincidence they got together at the Cedars of Lebanon; and, I turned to my wife and said, that’s a play.

Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake; photograph courtesy Dion Neutra
Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake; photograph courtesy Dion Neutra

DnA: As you wrote the play did you develop a stronger affection for either one of the men?

TL: Yes.

DnA: Which one?

TL: Well, you know Rudolph Schindler is a guy’s guy. He was theatrical and dramatic and a rogue and a philanderer and hands-on. He designed his own clothes. Whenever you see a photograph of him he’s kind of turned into a profile like John Barrymore. He’s a big guy, he’s a big character to write.

DnA: It’s so ironic that Richard Neutra who was the less flamboyant and the more precise and orderly — that he’s the one that winds up as the international superstar.

TL: Yeah, I mean, because they’re so different and they’re both so good; it’s a fabulous palate of characters to deal from.

DnA: And it takes place in a Neutra-designed building?

TL: Yes, and that’s the wonderful gift we have with this. We don’t have to try and create great architecture, we are allowed to perform our piece in an unfettered Richard Neutra building. We don’t have to dress it at all. It’s the Neutra museum and gallery run by Richard Neutra’s son Dion.

And he came to see our only public reading and said we got it amazingly right. And invited us to perform the play in the museum, so we get to perform this story about these men in a site-specific, appropriate space.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.”The Princes of Kings Road” will be performed 12 nights in the Neutra-designed offices that are now Dion Neutra’s Neutra Institute and Museum  of  Silver Lake, starting September 12.  Click here for more information.