Neighborhood Watch

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the summer of 2007, a show named Passing Strange opened Off Broadway at New York's Public Theatre. It was an exciting new musical featuring songs from Stew, an L.A.-based indie rocker. The show was about a middle class black kid from South Central L.A. and it featured none of the clichés one associates either with musicals or movies about growin' up in the hood.

Passing Strange was a show that screamed to be brought here to LA, especially to either the Mark Taper Forum or the new Kirk Douglas Theatre.

It had even played an out-of-town run up at Berkeley Repertory Theater the year before, but apparently no one working at Southern California's theaters saw Passing Strange either up north or back east, or if they did they didn't think much of it. So instead of coming to Los Angeles, it went straight to Broadway, where Passing Strange won a slew of awards including the Tony for Best Book of a New Musical.

The fact that Passing Strange, arguably one of the best American musicals of this decade, has yet to play in Los Angeles, the very city where its creator lived and where the musical itself is set is a great failing of our Center Theatre Group.

Yes, the other big, local companies are just as guilty, but CTG is the biggest of LA's theaters and it specializes in cultivating musicals en route to Broadway, like this seasons 9 to 5 or the recently opened Minksy's.

Now, the reason the neglect of Passing Strange is on my mind, is that this month, another Off-Broadway show from New York's Public Theater (yes, the same theater where Passing Strange played) has been brought to the Kirk Douglas Theater.

This show is entitled Taking Over. It's a one-man play, written and starring Danny Hoch, a youngish performer who specializes in the stories and accents of New York's diverse ethnic communities.

Taking Over portrays, in a series of monologues, the gentrification of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The characters Hoch creates are often vivid and compelling, my favorite being an ex-con who wheedles a P.A. on an independent film for a job, offering even to carry things for free, just so that his mother can see him doing something productive.

But the show has big problems, namely the waft of hypocrisy. The show satirizes white people moving in and Taking Over a neighborhood from its poorer, ethnic inhabitants. But isn't Hoch, a white writer/actor himself, guilty of theatrical gentrification with his “taking over” of the neighborhood and its people's accents?

And yet there's a bigger problem with Taking Over: why is the Center Theatre Group bringing such a New York-centric show to Los Angeles — and believe me Taking Over is beyond New York-centric, containing certain punch lines that will only be funny to people in about two or three New York zip-codes — while ignoring the plays written by artists from LA that take place in LA? I have no problem with Center Theatre Group staging shows about the corner of Bedford and Metropolitan...but not if it's crowding out a show about the corner of Adams and Crenshaw that's much better.

Also frustrating is that Taking Over, a show that takes aim at high-flying real estate flippers and high priced, high-rise condos, seems already dated thanks to the recession. When Hoch's show was playing in New York last fall, another show was playing downstairs at the same theater (yes, the Public Theater, once again) a show that gains more and more social relevance each day of the recession: Steven Sondheim's Road Show.

Road Showw is a melancholic musical about the Florida land boom of the 1920's. It, like Passing Strange, is a modest-sized show that would fit perfectly on the Kirk Douglas stage. It's a long shot, but L.A. theatergoers can hope that complex, innovative shows like Road Show and Passing Strange will make its way here…in the meantime we'll have to be content with Danny Hoch's Taking Over which runs through February 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Danny Hoch in Taking Over at the Kirk Douglas Theatre: Photo: Kevin Berne