The Invisible Hand

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The Invisible Hand
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In Hollywood, what everyone really wants to do is direct. In the theater, however, that-s not the case. On a movie set, the director-s in charge of the action, but on the stage it-s the playwright who has the final word. Because of this, most stage directors-even the most successful ones on Broadway-go largely unnoticed.

There are exceptions of course. Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, and Julie Taymor have signature visual styles that make their work stand out; but for the most part, stage directors today are like pre-auteur theory filmmakers: people who take great pride when their work is completely transparent to the audience.

If there was one film director who embodied this style during the era of the studio system in Hollywood, it was Michael Curtiz. He never put his own stamp on the material, preferring instead to make the pictures seem as if they weren-t directed at all.

Daniel Sullivan is the stage director who best embodies this ethic and could be called the theater-s Michael Curtiz. Sullivan has worked on countless plays on Broadway and around the country at regional theaters. He has no distinct visual style or easily classifiable ticks or traits, but what he does have is the ability to make it seem as if he-s not really there-which is perhaps the most difficult thing for any director to pull off.

Two example-s of Sullivan-s work were on display this summer, one in New York and one here in Los Angeles. In New York, Sullivan directed the revival of Donald Margulies- Sight Unseen starring Laura Linney. (Interestingly, Sight Unseen was originally commissioned by Costa Mesa-s South Coast Repertory, where tomorrow night, Sullivan will be directing the World Premiere of a new Margulies play, Brooklyn Boy.)

Margulies- Sight Unseen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-s breakthrough work which tells the story of a famous artist who-s suffering from painter-s block. What-s so remarkable about Sullivan-s revival was that he didn-t just re-stage the 1992 version or completely re-haul it. Sullivan simply showed that the real drama in the play came from the character of the artist-s ex-lover, played by Laura Linney.

Obviously it would have been easy for Linney, now a movie star to simply vamp her way through the play and steal the show as a diva. But with Sullivan-s careful direction, Linney-s character emerges to the foreground without histrionics or flamboyant gestures. The way Linney is allowed to emote without words-like the way she scrubs coffee cups in the sink or the way she casually puts her hand on the painter-s shoulder-these touches don-t alter Margulies- text, but rather bring it into clearer focus.

Unlike the more famous stage directors who reinterpret works to fit their vision, Sullivan reinterprets the text to make another case for the author-s vision. Linney-s gestures and actions speak more than pages of dialogue-and make no mistake, they were not mere accidents. Sullivan-s sure directorial hand only makes it seem as if they were.

With Sight Unseen, Sullivan took an established play and made parts of it seem new and more probing. Here in Los Angeles, it-s still possible to experience the other side of Sullivan-s mastery: to make a lesser play seem good.

Lynn Nottage-s Intimate Apparel (also originally commissioned by SCR) has received a fair amount of praise as it picked up a number of awards for its New York run last spring. It-s not a bad play, but it-s utterly conventional and sometimes maddeningly predictable.

Still, with the help of a talented cast, Sullivan makes the proceedings almost seem dramatic. The set changes are swift, the blocking very direct-but his best work is seen in the relationship between Viola Davis- seamstress and the schmatta salesman played by Corey Stoll. Their scenes are the most underwritten and yet it is because the emotions are not spelled out that Daniel Sullivan is able to give them real spontaneity and spark.

Intimate Apparel directed by Daniel Sullivan closes this Sunday afternoon at the Mark Taper Forum. The World Premiere of Donald Margulies- Brooklyn Boy also directed by Daniel Sullivan opens tomorrow at South Coast Rep and runs through October 10.