Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


The price of theatre

On Friday, a friend and I went to see the Arthur Miller play “The Price” downtown at the Taper. I am not by nature an Arthur Miller fan; I’d rather be burned at the stake than ever again sit through the screaming girls in “The Crucible,” and to me the dramatic problems presented in “Death of a Salesman” would be easily solved if only Willy Loman would get a job he’s better suited for. But “The Price” turned out to be a completely engaging, unexpected and well-written evaluation of the price paid for certain life decisions by two brothers fighting (or not) over what’s left behind after their father’s death. Moreover, it’s anchored by four very fine performances, especially that of 87-year-old Alan Mandell, stealing the show as a comically sly appraiser wheedling a storehouse of old furniture out of Sam Robards’ grasp in exchange for peanuts. Mandell delivers every laugh possible while bringing to life a performance that’s completely plausible and true. That he can do this at age 87 is argument itself against term limits for stage actors.

Afterward, my friend and I went for a drink and shared another sort of price: While it’s often reported how expensive it is to attend the theatre, there’s the even greater very real financial cost paid by those devoted to making theatre. The backdrop for this discussion was our own experiences (I have no doubt I’m out hundreds of thousands of dollars) as well as the ugly rumblings from Actors Equity that it may end the 99-seat plan that allows union actors to perform on LA’s small stages. Moving actors in sub-100-seat houses from token payments of $10 or $20 a performance into minimum wage won’t help them make a living; instead, it’ll shutter our small theatres and sideline thousands of actors. (But then, if you’re the union and you subsist on dues and shares of revenues, and your revenue resulting from these theatres is almost nil, why should you care?) The actors have been subsidizing small theatre, for sure — but so have been the playwrights and the directors and the board ops and everyone else involved. And God knows the producers — and I’ve been one — have spent both opportunity costs and actual hard cash on keeping small theatre alive, because it means so much to us.

Scheduling and life circumstances had cost my friend and me more than a year and a half since we’d last seen each other. I just confirmed this in my calendar. The last time we’d gone out together had been in August of 2013 to see a Woody Allen movie. Judging by the terrific time we had together on Friday night, that’s far too long. I also note that in 2011 we saw a movie called “The Debt.” I couldn’t remember anything about this movie, so I just looked it up. Now it comes back to me. It’s a thriller about old friends who shared an adventure in the past, but who question the choices they made, much as the characters in “The Price” do. And much as we all do.

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