Theatre of Mee

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

When the Center Theatre Group was looking for the right play to inaugurate their new space in Culver City, there were many reasons to chose a work by Charles Mee. In the last few years, Mee's plays have slowly begun to be produced all around the country--but there's still is a sense that Charles Mee hasn't yet reached a true critical mass. None of his plays have become runaway hits in New York nor has Hollywood made his name known to people outside the theater world.

No doubt, Gordon Davidson could have had a big-name playwright whip something up to open the new theater; but in choosing Mee, Davidson and the people in charge of the new Kirk Douglas Theatre have indicated that they want the space to be home, not for works and artists on their way down (after successes on Broadway or London) but instead for people and plays on their way up.

What's interesting is that Charles Mee is getting the type of attention and buzz that's usually reserved for young, hip, up-and-coming playwrights of the Conor McPherson or Rebecca Gilman mold. But while his quirky, playful pastiches may seem like the work of an MTV generation mind, in fact the 66 year-old Mee's plays are firmly rooted in the style of more classical forms.

One of the first chances Los Angeles got to see the work of Charles Mee was ten years ago when The Actor's Gang staged his reworking of Euripides' Orestes (which starred both Tim Robbins and a young Jack Black). Then five years ago, Mee's play Berlin Circle inaugurated another L.A. theater--the Evidence Room's then-new Rampart District complex. The cast and staging were first rate and Berlin Circle proved a genuine small-theater success. Since then, Charles Mee's plays have been regularly appearing in Southern California. In 2001, his The Trojan Women: A Love Story was staged at CalArts and then in 2002, the La Jolla Playhouse hosted the world premiere of Mee's Wintertime.

This production of Wintertime, directed by Les Waters, was a major step forward, as it showed Mee finally finding his own form. All of the plays mentioned before were updates or adaptations of existing works. With Wintertime, all of these elements that Mee brought to his reconfiguring of classics were present, but they were in the background. What emerged in the foreground of this play was a writer, who because of his knowledge of the past, was now able to connect with the emotions of modern life in a simple but direct way that no other contemporary playwright has really been able to do.

A Perfect Wedding, the play now on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is in many ways a continuation of Wintertime (and Mee's subsequent play Summertime). A Perfect Wedding shares these earlier plays' form--their free-flowing dialogue, careening storylines and musical interludes--and even some of its characters (Ariel, Francois, Maria) share the same names.

Most of all, what A Perfect Wedding shares with Mee's best work, is its joyful--if occasionally bittersweet--embrace of life and love. Audiences unfamiliar with Mee's work will likely be instantly won over by the quicksand scene, the Bollywood musical set piece, and most of all, the extended kiss set to Ave Maria that becomes a lip-locked ballet.

Yet one can't help feeling that something about A Perfect Wedding, isn't quite, well, perfect. Somehow, the poetic quality that was so abundant in the La Jolla production of Wintertime, isn't quite present here in Culver City. Seeing a number of Mee's plays in row last winter when the UCLA Theatre Department staged a sort of Mini-Mee festival, it was clear that his plays, while always enjoyable, require that elusive and intangible phenomenon known as chemistry to really come alive on stage.

A Perfect Wedding seems to have all the right ingredients, but for whatever reason, it doesn't all come together. The acting, the directing, even the new theater were all in fine form--so one really can't complain. Who knows why it didn't all click--maybe it's just Mee?

Charles Mee's A Perfect Wedding runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through November 28.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.