Jumping Ship

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the unwritten laws of journalism is that once something happens three times, it officially becomes a trend. Already twice this year, major Los Angeles theaters had to cancel world premieres of new plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. In January, Center Theatre Group announced that David Mamet's first musical, A Waitress in Yellowstone, was indefinitely postponed; and then in April, The Geffen Playhouse announced that it was postponing the world premiere of Donald Margulies' new play, The Elephant in the Room, about a photojournalist returning home after covering a war.

If this happens again soon, I suppose we'll have a trend.

Now, it should be said that neither Mamet nor Margulies completely bailed on two of L.A.'s most prominent theaters; both provided each company with a previously written work. In Mamet's case, a one act that had never been staged called, Keep Your Pantheon, and with Margulies, a play that premiered in Orange County last year called, Shipwrecked! .

Both comedies are enjoyable pieces of entertainment, but many theatergoers and theater fans I've talked to couldn't help but feel that they were getting leftovers.

How can LA avoid this trend of becoming known as the place where major new theatrical work gets cancelled at the last minute?

The simple answer would be: don't announce a big world premiere unless you've got the script in hand, but the deeper lesson from this season is: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights don't necessarily need to earn their living from the theater anymore.

It's great for LA companies to commission plays from established playwrights like Margulies and Mamet; but neither the Geffen nor Center Theater Group can compete with the sums of money movie studios or television networks can pay for top shelf writing. Margulies is currently writing a film for Mike Myers and Mamet has a hit show on CBS. Despite both writers' deep love of the theater, their priorities are understandably with the projects that will reach the widest audience.

This doesn't mean that LA Theaters shouldn't go after major playwrights, but it does suggest that they should not put all their eggs—or development budgets—into one Pulitzer-winner's basket.

What LA theater needs these days is not more established New York playwrights premiering their work in Southern California; what it needs is to find the local writers and directors, with distinct styles and voices, whose work theaters like the Geffen or the Taper can champion.

If the Geffen were to commission a new piece from a young writer or local company, my guess is they wouldn't have to postpone it. Of course, a no-name doesn't sell tickets like a new Mamet or Margulies, but then settling for a revival that played at South Coast Rep just a few months ago, isn't exactly a draw either.

Revisiting Margulies' Shipwrecked! at the Geffen was bittersweet—it's still a fun play, sure, with an inventive staging and a strong performance by Gregory Itzen. But it's slight, and it's not a major work. That's fine, writers shouldn't be expected to produce epics or masterpieces every time—but seeing Shipwrecked! revived so soon, and in place of something bigger (that may or may not make it to the Geffen stage) all I could think of was that LA's larger theaters seem uninterested in nurturing local talent; instead, they're under the impression that they are shipwrecked, cast away from Broadway, hoping that some hero will save them and bring them back to the lights of the Great White Way.

Shipwrecked! Runs at the Geffen Playhouse through this Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.