Michael Sargent: a playwright makes good in the lobby
Does Los Angeles, forgetful capital of youth-chasing ephemera, deserve a playwright as doggedly dedicated as Michael Sargent?
Truth is, no matter how much love this Toledo, Ohio, native gets back from his adopted hometown — and right now Sargent is riding an upsurge — the boy can’t help it. All of his plays, from “Tarantula” to “Hollywood Burning,” have been rollicking role-plays inspired in part by films and pop culture, and even those that aren’t set in L.A.’s dream factory have the distinct secondhand scent of its factory fumes.
Indeed, Sargent has drunk deeply, and eagerly, of this sweet toxin.
“The audition for the job at Collectors Book Store was they just flashed a series of pictures of stars,” recalls Sargent between rehearsals for “The Projectionist,” his new comedy at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. “I was the only employee who had gotten 100% right.”
That was back in the 1980s, when Sargent was a movie-mad, Ventura-based teen tagging along with his aspiring-actor dad on trips to Hollywood. “The Projectionist,” the tale of a laconic film-school dropout killing time at a seedy second-run theater on Hollywood Boulevard, is inspired by those formative years soaking up the neighborhood’s pre-gentrified atmosphere.
“It just was my favorite place to hang out,” Sargent recalls warmly. “If I was going to see a movie, it was on Hollywood Boulevard. There was the Pacific then, with four screens, where I can remember seeing Julian Sands in ‘Warlock’; I would drag my boyfriend’s sister to these late-night showings. And Musso and Frank’s is still my favorite restaurant.”
But as besotted as he is with movies — high, low and every point in between — Sargent also concurrently fell under the spell of the town’s edgy, self-reliant theater scene.
“I became a fan of John Steppling’s, and I saw a play of his at Padua [Playwrights Festival] the year they did it at Cal Arts, that amazing year with Maria Irene Fornes,” Sargent recalls. When Steppling announced a playwriting workshop in Hollywood, Sargent eagerly signed on. Somewhere between Steppling’s workshop and the Hollywood Wax Museum, this young playwright’s unique sensibility was born.
“Steppling made me a playwright,” Sargent says unequivocally. “He made me a reading list of authors to read; he shaped my little mind. He always encouraged me to write whatever I want and let some clever director figure out how to stage it. So I’ve had people ax down a door; I’ve put a real hot tub onstage.”
True to form, in “Grand Motel,” a resplendent dark comedy about a decadent Southern playwright that closes at the Unknown Theater the same weekend “The Projectionist” opens, Sargent wrote a pool into the set. Unknown artistic director Chris Covics obligingly realized it in his lushly seedy design; the onstage pool is but a few inches deep, but it more than does the trick.
“The Projectionist” presents a different sort of challenge for director Bart DeLorenzo and his designers. Set entirely in a movie-theater lobby, it is staged environmentally in the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre. But DeLorenzo and Covics — on hand to design here as well — won’t be allowed to return the former movie triplex to its own ’80s-era grit.
“We have to ‘destroy’ the lobby without destroying the lobby,” DeLorenzo says of Covics’ set, which has been constructed to neatly layer gum-stained ’80s-era squalor on top of the Douglas’ posh renovations. Around 55 seats will be set up in the lobby for audiences to watch Randy, a profoundly bored projectionist/usher/concessionaire (played by Hamish Linklater), deal with the increasingly sinister comings and goings through his dingy domain.
Remarkably, though his career now spans 20 years, with some unproduced screenplays and New York workshops along the way (“New York kind of flirts with me,” Sargent says, “but I never get the second date”), “The Projectionist” marks Sargent’s major-theater debut.
“It was actually turned down for the Douglas season, so I thought this one was going back in the drawer,” says Sargent, instantly recognizable for his lanky frame, flowing mane of brown hair, expressive face and arching, tarantulan eyebrows worthy of Bela Lugosi. “It was quite shocking when they called me and said, ‘We’re going to put you in the lobby and do it environmentally.’”
DeLorenzo, who produced Sargent’s “Hollywood Burning” at the Evidence Room in 2002, finds the play a departure — and not only because it features none of the matter-of-fact nudity and simulated sex that have become Sargent staples.
“So many of his plays are explorations of tabloid and celebrity — they’re roman à clefs in different ways,” says DeLorenzo. “And this isn’t. It’s a completely original story born from his imagination, and it’s semi-autobiographical.”
Sargent only half-concedes the point.
“My work is always right out of my diary, practically,” he begins, tentatively. “There are some similarities between myself and Randy, and I certainly riff on my own things.” But pointing to an uncharacteristically emotional speech by Randy about his father’s death, Sargent admits, “I’m a little in denial. I feel sort of exposed. This is definitely a daddy play.”
Lest this makes Sargent sound like outlet-mall O’Neill, it should be noted that even his bleakest plays have the tingle and buzz of comedy, not to mention a pop-culture fluency rivaled among his peers only by New York-based Sheila Callaghan. Indeed, even the most heightened conflicts in his plays seem to be played for laughs, or to appear through a scrim of genre references.
As DeLorenzo puts it, “Michael has a great fondness for melodrama, for sensational plots and drama and secrets. He tends to explore characters who have a self-conscious sense of their own existence, so they feel things but they also dramatize their feelings about things.”
The danger, in fact, is not to take Sargent too seriously but to see campy air-quotes around everything he writes. “It always happens with comedic writers — we lower our expectations of them,” DeLorenzo says. For Dennis Christopher, who plays the dissipated playwright Cornelius Coffin in “Grand Motel,” Sargent’s comedic craft is just the brilliant icing on a richly layered cake.
“He writes these hysterically funny, outrageous things, but when you work with him, you see how meticulous he is,” says Christopher, whose research into the part uncovered the play’s intricately embedded homage to Tennessee Williams (Cornelius Coffin was Williams’ father’s name, and “Grand Motel” contains countless references to Williams’ life and plays).
This painstaking craft, though, is at the service of something more, as the play eventually turns its gimlet-eyed gaze to the playwright’s suicidal self-loathing.
“Michael knows that you froth it up, you give them what they want, but then once you get people laughing, you can do anything — then you can hit them with the tragedy,” says Christopher. “His spirit is very young, but those waters run very, very deep.”
For all his sunny SoCal charm, the prolific Sargent has his share of demons. He was close to his aspiring-actor father, whose computer networking business — and marriage — collapsed mainly due to alcohol abuse just as Sargent was making a name for himself at UCLA’s theater school.
“My father was very successful when I was growing up, and then he literally lost everything,” Sargent says. “I had that experience early on, and I’ve had it over and over again. My fortunes just go ... ” Sargent mimes a wave’s up-and-down motion — a perfect metaphor, it seems, for an inveterate beach bum who’s made a career of dramatizing this town’s warp and woof, its giddy highs and its desolate lows, as well as anyone ever has.
-- Rob Weinert-Kendt
The Projectionist; the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 8 p.m. today-Saturday and April 2-3; 7 and 9:30 p.m. April 4.; $20; (213)- 628-2772; running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.
Photo: Michael Sargent. Credit: Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times.