Rehearsal Rewards

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two years ago, when August Wilson's final work Radio Golf was playing in Los Angeles, it was announced that the playwright was dying of liver cancer. Exactly two weeks after the show closed, Wilson passed away.

LA played a key part in the development of Wilson's plays. The last seven works in his 10-play cycle were staged at the Music Center before their eventual New York runs. The Taper production of Radio Golf in 2005 was the last one that Wilson oversaw personally. Despite this, Radio Golf (at the Taper) still felt like a work-in-progress. The play was too long, the drama often muddled, and the resolution unconvincing. Had he lived, Wilson planned to travel with the show's cast and director as it toured to other cities, before eventually taking it to Broadway.

This was the way Wilson liked to slowly refine and improve his plays. And it worked--all of these plays, once they made it to the Great White Way, were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. One of the many tragedies of Wilson's passing was that Radio Golf, without his hand in perfecting it, would never feel like a finished part of the cycle.

Radio Golf did finally make it to Broadway this year, yet despite four Tony nominations and mostly good reviews, the production closed on Sunday after less than two months. So to witness the curtain going down on August Wilson's ten-play cycle, I went back to Radio Golf on Saturday, to see its penultimate Broadway performance.

To my surprise, Radio Golf was vastly improved. The text was trimmed, the drama streamlined, and the audience was engaged throughout. Radio Golf still had some problems, but it finally felt like a vintage August Wilson play.

Why and how this happened is not a miracle. It wasn't Wilson looking down from the heavens or the bright lights of Broadway--it was simply hard work. Three of Radio Golf's five cast members have been touring with the show since the Taper run--as has the director, Kenny Leon. Over the course of these two long years, they took a flawed play that was slow and didactic and turned it into a vibrant, thought-provoking theatrical experience.

Theater requires time and dedication. Another case in point: last year, Los Angeles saw two productions of August Wilson's play, Fences. One starred Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne; the other had a few TV character actors but a lengthy workshop run before it officially opened. Needless to say, it's the latter Fences that still burns in my memory.

The director and the star of that acclaimed production, Jeffrey Hayden and Charlie Robinson, have teamed up again at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Instead of August Wilson, they're putting on Eugene O'Neill. Robinson plays Ephraim Cabot in O'Neil's classic Desire Under the Elms. Hayden employs an all black cast, which in theory suits O'Neill's Greek-style tragedy. In practice however, the production doesn't quite work.

The problem appears to be a lack of rehearsal time. Unlike his Fences, Hayden's Desire didn't have a six-week run at the Actor's Studio before opening at the Odyssey. Yet, if anything, tackling the more theatrical dialogue and styles of O'Neill requires even more rehearsal than the more naturalistic style of August Wilson. The result is that Robinson's acting has power but no focus. His character of Ephraim Cabot has three sons, but each of them has an entirely different accent: modern, southern, and Irish. This only distracts occasionally, but throughout the play O'Neill's dialogue sounds stilted.

One gets the sense that with enough rehearsal; these problems could be ironed out. But this is the problem with trying to stage meaningful, professional theater: sometimes you need to go back to the drawing board--and that requires time and money. Radio Golf's improvement is proof that with enough dedication, you can eventually get it right; but its brief Broadway run is a reminder that with theater, getting it right rarely turns a profit.

The Odyssey Theatre's Desire Under the Elms runs through July 29.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Charlie Robinson and Nadege August in Desire Under the Elms, courtesy of ENCI