A General, a Queen, a Theologian, and a Revolutionary Walk Into a Room….

I’ve written in the past of my admiration for the Steve Allen series “Meeting of Minds”, where four historical people are brought together for a roundtable discussion. Working Stage Productions has brought back the series as an ongoing series of staged readings. Last night was their third production, episode #3, featuring a discussion between President U.S. Grant (Dan Lauria), Dr. Karl Marx (Ed Asner), Queen Marie Antoinette (Meeghan Holaway), Sir Thomas More (Bruce Davison), and moderated by Steve Allen (Gary Cole). As usual, it was thought provoking and excellent.

Steve Allen wrote these scripts in the 1960s, and they were first produced for television in the 1970s. Thus, they contain some very slightly dated dialogue that is more emphasized in this particular episode than others, such as the references to Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State or the intense hatred for Karl Marx (which was very much a product of the Cold War). Still, this episode does have some topics that resonate today, such as the attempts by the United States to intervene in the affairs of other countries in order to promote democracy. This is highlighted when Karl Marx points out that it is difficult to argue for democracy when the problems of world hunger and world poverty are not being solved. Could this apply to the situation in the Middle East? Could the reason that the US is not embraced be that the US values haven’t improved the quality of life? These discussions make you (at least) think about the issue, and how we can work better to make the world a better place.

Still, the main focus of this episode is not Karl Marx — in this episode, he serves more as historian and adjunct moderator than civil agitator. His story, as well as that of Sir Thomas, comes out in Episode #4. This episode focuses more on the lives of U.S. Grant and especially Marie Antoinette and the philosphy behind the French Revolution. As such, the theme is more the disconnect of the nobility, how rulers can distance themselves from the rules, and ultimately, how civil wars are savage. It also emphasizes how the danger can come from either side: Antoinette was beheaded by the left-wing, and More by the right-wing.

In terms of acting and theatricality, this was a staged reading. Scripts were on stage, costumes and makeup were simple and suggestive (Grant’s uniform, Antoinette’s dress and hair). There were the occasional line hesitations (mostly from Gary Cole). Still, some superb theatricality shone through. I was particularly taken by Ed Asner, who conveyed Marx’s disgust with a number of the responses with simple facial gestures and movements, going above and beyond the script to establish the character. Meeghan Holaway also did an excellent job with Antoinette, especially in the scenes where she talked about her imprisonment and the revolution — she gave a good sense of non-chalance about the pesentry, and was truly moved to tears when talking about the life and death of King Louis. She also had a lovely French accent (unlike Asner, who didn’t attempt a Prussian accent, or Davison, who didn’t have an English accent). It was a bit disconcerting when she took off her wig (something that doesn’t happen in the original), but I guess it was wobbling and she thought it better to take it off and retain control. As Grant, Lauria provided some excellent gruff and bravado (as one would expect), but also conveyed his tender side well. Great performances.

Technically, the show was simple. A table, some chairs, some water on the table. The production was directed by Frank Megna; no other technical credits were provided in the program. Lighting was simple, and the program was recorded. I do have one technical comment. At the first episode we saw, a representative from Working Stage got up and introduced the program, indicated what they were trying to do with the revival, and (of course) requested that beeping devices be disabled. That wasn’t done at this performance, and I missed it. I think that bringing back this introduction would be a good thing for the series overall (and, of course, would goad those that forgot to silence their cells).

Another minor complaint, which I’m sure is due to scheduling, but never explained: For seasons 1, 2, and 3, there were two episodes with each set of four. We see the first, but never the second. It might be better to do these productions as a two-act show with each episode being an act, as opposed to the seeming approach of eventually doing the second episode. That, at least, would provide more even coverage to the four historical characters.

According to the program, the next episode in “Meeting of Minds” will be episode #9, featuring Martin Luther (Mark Moses), Plato (Harold Gould), Voltaire (Ray Abruzzo), Florence Nightengale, and Steve Allen (Gary Cole). It will be Sunday, October 25 at 7pm, presumably at the Steve Allen Theatre. The ticket page is not yet up.

Upcoming Theatre: Our next scheduled theatre is Sunday October 18, when we’re seeing the Donmar workshop version of “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum. The next weekend will see two productions: “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Saturday October 24 @ 8pm, and (pending ticketing) “Meeting of Minds” Episode #9 (Martin Luther, Plato, Voltaire, Florence Nightengale) at the Steve Allen Theatre on Sunday October 25 @ 8pm. Halloween weekend is currently open. The following weekend is currently blocked off for “A Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (although we may do it Veterans Day instead). The following weekend Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. The rest of December is currently open, but I know that sometime in December I’ll be attempting to ticket “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson (HotTix were supposed to go on sale 10/23, but may not as per the postscript below). As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

An interesting postscript to the above: There may not be HotTix to “Mary Poppins”. According to my contact in Audience Services at CTG, Disney and Center Theatre Group are in the midst of negotiations for HotTix. Disney is not in favor of having discount tickets and CTG would like to continue the HotTix program for this show. I’m waiting for the final answer on this, but we might be up in the balcony for that one.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.