Thanks, But No Thanks

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Thanks, but No Thanks

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Only two writers have declined the Nobel Prize for Literature. Interestingly enough, both these writers' most iconic works can be seen on Southern California stages this month.

Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak turned down the Nobel Committee in 1958. Dr. Zhivago won him immense acclaim abroad; but within the Soviet Union, both he and the novel were denounced as decadent and subversive. Under pressure from party officials, he turned down the award and the $45,000 prize that went with it.

Almost 50 years later, the La Jolla Playhouse is staging a musical of Pasternak's historical novel, titled Zhivago.

This Zhivago has not only been stripped of its scholarly prefix. Its creators have also abducted the novel's political, intellectual, and emotional aspects and sent them off to Siberia. In place of Pasternak's epic story is a Potemkin plot, one that looks vaguely like the story of Zhivago and Laura, but that has no life or humanity underneath its well-scrubbed surface.

The name &quotZhivago;" is a play on the Russian word for &quotlife;," and yet Zhivago the musical is a thoroughly lifeless affair--a perfect example of the perils of art by committee. The men and woman who collaborated to write the music, lyrics, and book of Zhivago are all accomplished, but if any of them ever possessed any passion for the material. it was smoothed out and erased in the process of making a big, user-friendly spectacle.

Lucy Simon's music is the main problem with Zhivago. All of her songs sound like 1980's power ballads and none have any particular Russian flavor. You could change the whole show to take place in contemporary Orange County, and the songs would still feel right at home. What's more, they're entirely unmemorable and indistinguishable from each other.

The only thing that keeps Zhivago watchable is the nimble direction of Des McAnuff. Despite the cold, mechanical sets, that make everything look like a Victorian railroad station, McAnuff keeps the action moving. Like the actors, whose talents are wasted on snowflake-thin characterizations, the director's prosaic professionalism stands out in a Zhivago that retains little trace of Pasternak's poetry.

Six years after communists forced Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize, French writer Jean-Paul Sartre declined the award of his own free will--though his rationale would have pleased the Politburo. Sartre once said that even great talents should not indulge in such bourgeois vanities as the Nobel Prize.

Of course, Sartre was famously inconsistent, so while he bagged on the Swedish Academy for being bourgey, he had no problem accepting Hollywood money for writing screenplays. Yes, Mr. Existentialist wrote for the movies. He wrote a screenplay about Sigmund Freud for John Huston and was even nominated for an Academy Award for the 1953 film titled The Proud and the Beautiful--whether he would have accepted the Oscar remains a fascinating hypothetical.

Sartre returns to Hollywood this month courtesy of the Accent Theatre Group's production of No Exit. The 1944 play is Sartre's most widely-read dramatic work, but it's not often performed. Jan Krekan's loud, un-illuminating production at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts offers some reasons why.

On Krekan's stage, the play feels long, dense, and depressing. Sartre's depiction of hell in a second empire drawing room is indeed dense and depressing--but it's not long and it should be viciously fun watching his damned characters unknowingly torture each other. But, the director is too obsessed with putting his own stamp on the work to allow any thrills for the audience. Sure, he adds a tango and some girl-on-girl action, but it feels tired. Krekan never really strays far from the text in any daring fashon--and he also fails to give credit in the program to the translator (Stuart Gilbert) which shows just how little the director was focusing on Sartre's words.

No Exit runs at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts through July 2, Zhivago continues at La Jolla Playhouse through July 9.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.