Jenny O’Hara and Zachary Grant in Little Theatre. Photo by Jeff Lorch.
Backstage plays are the juiciest fun for theater aficionados. From Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, shows about entertainment sausage-making offer much-appreciated insights into what goes on behind the curtain.
The backstage genre also shines in documentaries and books (Alek Keshishian’s seminal film Madonna: Truth or Dare; Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy and Steven Bach’s Final Cut about the making of two movie debacles). The best tell-alls are deliciously vicious and reveal the comedic, artistic and sometimes tragic results of super-sized ego and power.
Joining the list is Little Theatre, a world premiere by Justin Tanner, from Rogue Machine. Tanner is the ultimate Los Angeles theater insider. He’s been a playwright here since 1987, and has maximized this depth of knowledge in a dishy take on the Cast, a ‘90s theater company in Hollywood led by the late Diana Gibson (called Monica in the show and played fiercely by Jenny O’Hara).
In writing Little Theatre, Tanner delves into his origin story: He arrived to do community service and rose to become in-house playwright with a string of successes. His doppleganger is James, played with empathy by Zachary Grant. James also narrates the action.
Monica runs her theater like a fascist regime, focused on keeping it funded and making sure no one ever touches the piles on her desk or the radio dial. The universal truths are in the unique details, including the wry and demented interplay between Monica and her longtime foil, theater manager Danny, played by Ryan Brophy. Brophy gives a deadpan delivery of his wickedly biting lines, unafraid to tell Monica exactly how disgruntled he is.
Tanner’s play is crammed full of great lines, often spoken by the loved/hated Monica. On hiring, she says, “Medium broken, that’s how we like ‘em.” In response to a diatribe by James, she remarks drily, “What else have you always wanted to say to your mother?”
Little Theatre feels like a scandalous expose of people you’ve probably never heard of but come to care about deeply. The audience, however, is inevitably sprinkled with those who have lived through the times presented here. Their knowing laughter and groans add emphasis throughout.
Find those insiders during intermission and grill them about what they didn’t know at the time was the peak of LA’s small theater culture. They’ll tell you about the dozen-plus plays opening all over town every week back in the mid-’90s, of award shows with hundreds in attendance. It’s a very different world now, for many unpleasant reasons.
Director Lisa James keeps the action moving adeptly, on a spot-on set designed by John Iacovelli. (The office bulletin board, chock full of ‘90s-era theater references, is particularly compelling.)
The script, while revealing and satisfying on many levels, has its issues. The narration is unnecessary. The passage of time gets confusing. And when James becomes a successful playwright yet remains underpaid and under Monica’s thumb, it’s not clear while he doesn’t leave. Is she his muse and dramaturg, or is he just codependent? Despite all this, Little Theatre is emphatically worth seeing, for theater insiders and outsiders alike.
Little Theatre, from Rogue Machine Theatre, is playing through Jan. 8 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Show times are 8:00 p.m. Wednesdays (pay what you want) through Saturdays, 3:00 p.m. Sundays; No performances on Dec. 24, 25 or 31 or Jan. 1. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased here.