This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
In some ways, Los Angeles can be thankful that theater here never saw a "Golden Age."
This came to mind on the opening night of The Actors' Gang's current revival of Klüb—a backstage farce about a seriously dysfunctional troupe of performers. Written by Mitch Watson and Directed by Michael Schlitt, Klüb is a wicked Valentine to show biz, a sort of Chorus Line of the Damned.
Klüb opens with a clown. He's smoking a cigarette to the melancholy strains of an accordion. This clown (played by the playwright himself) then addresses the audience in an abrasive tone before shooting the accordion player dead. For the next 90 minutes we see the clown and his desperate castmates clinging to their vanity as they happily sell out their partners for a break and literally draw blood to curry favor with the director.
The entertainment industry is significantly different than it was in 1992, when Klüb premiered at The Actor's Gang, but the emotions that fuel it haven't changed a bit. Klüb shakes up all the traits that have historically made show business so lively and awful (ambition, denial, pride, stubbornness) and serves them up in a dark, celebratory cocktail.
The production features some noteworthy performances. Beth Tapper is a riot as a woman who's been playing Little Orphan Annie for too many decades—but seems to be still taking Ritalin. Nathan Kornelis is quietly clueless as a former child star (famous for the TV show "Kirby the Aquaboy") who's now trying to go legit. Also fun are Michael Neimand and Joseph Grimm who reprise their roles from the original production as the cornball vaudeville duo "The Woodnards."
What's fascinating is that the depth of Klüb's tawdry, behind the curtain view of showbiz would have seemed novel 16 years ago. 1992 was still a few years before the Internet and the advent of celeb-reality television. Schlitt and Watson were ahead of the game in tapping into the schadenfreude of seeing entertainers mercilessly paraded in front of its audience and humiliated as spectator sport. Klüb is a sort of theatrical precursor to Celebrity Deathmatch, The Surreal Life, and a slew of other shows where stars try to barter their acting fame into 15 more minutes of pop culture infamy.
This revival of Klüb (remounted to celebrate The Actor's Gang's 25th Anniversary season) serves as a reminder of this company's consistent style: rough, improvisatory work that aims to reflect what's going in the world outside of the theater's walls; but Klüb also suggests that this type of theater does have a shelf life.
The specific archetypes and conventions that Klüb mocks—mimes, Little Orphan Annie, variety shows—are all relics of sort of a generic, pre-talking picture show business when live theater was "the big time." 16 years since it saw Klüb's debut, America has seen armies of celebrity icons rising and falling, from Kato Kalin to Paris Hilton. Now they're the poster children for show-biz has-beens—much more so than old-tyme ventriloquists or chain-smoking clowns.
Today, light years away from theater's Golden Age, even the worst on-stage shtick seems noble in comparison to those fighting it out to be on reality TV. In some ways, the dated aspects of a show like Klüb are a testament to the continued dedication of scrappy troupes like The Actor's Gang. As theater in America has lived through its rise, fall, comeback, backlash, second comeback...perhaps it can finally be seen as an act that's here to stay.
Klüb runs at the Actor's Gang through May 10.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Jean-Louis Darville