April 16, 1998


Brain Trust

Taper producing director Robert Egan gets to the heart of the gray matter.


by Rob Kendt


If artistic director Gordon Davidson is the Mark Taper Forum's heart, producing director Robert Egan is its head.


So goes the conventional wisdom about the men at the top of Los Angeles' premier LORT house, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary producing theatre in a town more widely known as a film capital (all 30 with Davidson, the last 14 with Egan). Of course, such a simple characterization is not fair to either director; it gives short shrift to Davidson's shrewdness and intelligence as a producer and arts leader on the one hand, and to Egan's growing warmth and empathy as an interpreter on the other.


Still, it's easy to see their directing work, at least in the last decade, in these bi-cameral terms--Davidson bringing his menschy compassion to such accessible multi-generational family dramas as Sybil Pearson's Unfinished Stories or Leslie Ayvazian's Nine Armenians, and Egan his considered, absent-minded professor's air to a political allegory like Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden or a contrarian ideological nightmare like Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Indeed, the impression that Egan over-thinks and under-realizes the plays in his care has been noted by local critics, myself included.


But last season was different: His production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia won slews of laurels, including Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards and Back Stage West's own Garland awards. And with his deeply felt mounting of David Hare's heartbreaking two-hander Skylight, Egan's directing at last seemed arrive at an inspired marriage of head and heart, intellect and feeling. Though he's not ready to disown his earlier work, it's an evolution he's sensed himself, he admitted in a recent interview in his cozy office in the Taper annex.


"I think I'm a different director than I used to be, and in many ways a better director," he said, citing his own divorce some years back as a turning point that has impacted his work. "When there are big upheavals in one's own life, it gives you an added dimension in terms of looking at other human beings, drawing out of them deeper levels, deeper colors. When I was younger, I was more interested in theatrical form, in the possibilities of what theatre can do in terms of ritual and imagination--as younger directors tend to be. At worst, that leads to self-indulgence; at its best, it leads to a real concentration of ideas."


Apropos his intellectual bent, Egan spent formative years at Oxford in the 1970s--a place where the political ferment of the time was being reflected, and even created, on stages.


"I came out of the war years in the States, and the latter phases of civil rights, when very significant sectors of the U.S. were heavily politicized, and there were major battles going on," Egan recalled. "So I'm very much a child of that time. In England, the children of that time were writing dramatic pieces under that influence--Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Edward Bond, David Hare. I found myself deeply attracted to writers who cared to talk about the relationship between people and social institutions."


It's an interest Egan shares with Davidson--who has made the Taper's reputation largely by mounting such relevant sociopolitical dramas as The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Zoot Suit, and Twilight--and with the Taper's audience. "Our audiences, we've found across the board, like plays that have a certain sophistication of language, where you're hearing ideas on the stage," Egan said. "And that's definitely a strong strain in European plays, and especially British writing."


A New Balance

This shared interest with the audience, combined with his trans-Atlantic education, partly explains why Egan's last three directing assignments have been English plays: Arcadia, Skylight, and now Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, which opens at the Taper this week. Indeed, in discussing his own development as a director, Egan cites the progress many of those same British playwrights have made from the politicized and formalist theatre of the 1970s to a more humanistic, equivocal, often emotionally enriched drama.


"I wouldn't presume to compare myself in terms of artistry, but my maturation process has paralleled playwrights like Stoppard and Hare," he said. "While their early works were very top-loaded with ideas and formal experimentation, Skylight and Arcadia explore a new balance between the viscera, the heart, the humanity, and the ideas--they're not as cerebral-centered."


Actually, Dealer's Choice marks something of a generational departure for Egan, since it's not the work of a seasoned English master forged by the 1960s counterculture but of one of the U.K.'s hot young playwrights, now making waves in London and New York, who come from diverse backgrounds and reflect a more jaundiced post-Thatcher view of the world and human potential. Marber, for instance, is a 34-year-old former standup comic and compulsive gambler, and Dealer's Choice, a play about restaurant workers engaged in a high-stakes poker game with its owner and his son, which he directed to great acclaim at the Royal National Theatre in 1995, was his first play. His second, Closer, opened in London last year and won the Olivier Award.


For Egan, of course, there's more to Dealer's Choice than what's in the cards.


"On the surface, you follow a night in these characters' lives," he explained. "Beneath the surface, it delves into the most extraordinary tangle of human ritual--how people bond, what they fear, what they do in the face of a seemingly vast, existential universe. Part of the metaphor for that is poker, but it's also about repressed sexuality, and repressed desire on a lot of levels--what happens when you find yourself stuck, and how you summon the courage to break free from that."


If Egan has ever felt stuck in his years at the Taper, where he has been openly discussed as a successor to the hardy Davidson (who, it should be noted, shows no signs of slowing down or of giving up the helm of the theatre he created), he's gotten over it.


"There was a period I didn't enjoy," he said without rancor, and without specifying. "When you lose your evangelical spirit for the theatre, it might be time to get out. But I definitely enjoy what I do now. I have been fed by people and plays, and I genuinely like actors. And now, after working for years, I have a broader base of contact with them."


He described directing a scene in Dealer's Choice between Daniel Davis and Dennis Arndt, the latter with whom he's worked before.


"We had this extremely complicated emotional scene, which we got around to at 20 to 11:00," Egan recalled. "I gave Dennis 10 huge, very specific notes, which I didn't tell Danny. They not only played every single note but completely engaged with each other. That comes from trust."


Sensory Architecture

Indeed, the theme of trust--and its concomitant issues of vulnerability and emotional debt--seems to loom as large in Egan's work as perhaps the power of theatrical and social institutions once did.


"I've always been a patient director," he said. "But now I have a different kind of patience--a fearless kind of patience, where I trust that if we keep at it, just keep drawing on the text, we'll be able to bring the visceral life, the blood, and the humor, to the world of ideas."


Yes, he does still like to spend the first week of rehearsal around a table, reading the play, talking through it, asking and answering questions.


"I like to find the basic architecture of the text--which isn't just an intellectual thing; it's almost sensory," Egan explained. "And I find that when the actors get up on their feet, if they have that sense of the piece, they can explore with a sense of purpose."


Still, he feels increasingly that his mission is less to impart the play to the actors than to "relentlessly lead them into the play, and then to let them discover. Because the more the actor discovers, the more he owns it and can perform it."


In his Taper career, Egan has gone through a similar process of discovery, ownership, and improved performance, which L.A. audiences have been privileged to witness.