Welcome to Another Meeting of Minds

As I wrote yesterday, we saw two productions on Sunday. The first was “M*A*S*H” at Repertory East Playhouse. The second, which is the subject of this review, was the latest installment of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds at the Steve Allen Theatre. This month we had Episode #7, and our guests were:

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)….. Ernie Hudson
Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)…. Joe Mantegna
Empress Tz’u-Hsi (1835-1908)…. France Nuyen
Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)…. Richard Gilliland
Steve Allen (1921-2000)…. Gary Cole

The script was updated slightly from the original 1979 script, including references to the health care debate and President Obama. The person who was given credit for suggesting the Marquis de Sade was changed from Claire Boothe Luce to Rush Limbaugh. Even without updating, some interchanges were truly applicable today:

STEVE: Why do you think, Signor Beccaria, that progress in this area has been so painfully slow?
DOUGLASS: Progress, my friend, is always slow.
BECCARIA: Yes. It seems to me that the intellectual enlightenment of a nation is usually about a century in advance of its actual practice.
DOUGLASS: Again and again through history we see precisely this same process. The brighter, more civilized individuals in a culture begin to perceive that something is wrong, about a specific custom. They very tentatively, carefully–even fearfully–begin to question that custom.
BECCARIA: (He nods) Perhaps–as I did–they publish their writings anonymously, out of fear of vicious reprisal. A quite justified fear, may I add.
     Then, at a second stage, one man’s modest gesture encourages another, so that gradually there emerges a body of opinion–at least among certain intellectuals, scholars, and reformers–that more outspokenly criticizes the prevailing custom, whatever it might be, whether we are talking about slavery, burning people alive, or whatever.
DOUGLASS: But generally at this stage a backlash takes place. A great conservative groundswell attacks the reformers, questioning not only their arguments but their intelligence, even their loyalty.
     If their arguments prove difficult to assail, then they personally are attacked, sometimes even physically.
STEVE: But many people ask: why not? Such disturbers of the peace–they argue–deserve to be punished!
DOUGLASS: It is not the peace they disturb, Mr. Allen; it is the status quo. But this reactionary backlash in turn stimulates its own opposition–generally because of its unfairness and cruelty–and this, in turn, encourages a still small but now growing number of people who perceive that their society does indeed need to be additionally civilized. And so this slow, glacial process occurs–sometimes speeded by revolution, sometimes not.
     That is why necessary progress is usually made so painfully slowly.

Now, this discussion was relating to the stopping of torture for minor crimes, but applies equally well to health care or the gay marriage debate. It is why these program as so timeless: the thoughts and philosophies are as timeless today as when conceived by the speakers, or when written as a script by Steve Allen.

The Episode #7 discussion was a bit more focused than most, exploring the history of the speakers as well as the notions of torture and its appropriateness, and how free man should be to inflict pain and cruelty on other man. Is it something, as deSade argued, that should be freely permitted with consent, or is it something that goes against general moral law, as Beccaria argued? It is right to kill or torture because you disagree with someone or see them as barbaric, as the Empress believed? Is it right to subjugate and exploit people for financial gain, as was done with slaves, and as the western societies tried to do in China? This was the topic of discussion.

Viewing the production as theatre, there were strengths and weaknesses. As usual, Gary Cole was obviously reading the script cold, as he had a lot of line stumbles. France Nuyen conveyed her character well, but spoke a bit softly, requiring the sound engineer to have to raise her amplification noticably. Erine Hudson was a forceful but calm Douglass, improving as the episode went on. Richard Gilliland gave a stunning and playful performance as de Sade, and was quite entertaining to watch (especially in his interplay with Joe Mantegna as Beccaria). As always, the production was directed by Frank Megna.

Dan Lauria, who bears an uncanny resemblance to President U.S. Grant, introduced the program, and reminded attendees of the goal of bringing this program to college campuses. He noted the well-known Hollywood actors who have already participated in the program (such as Ed Asner as Karl Marx), and the ones who will be in upcoming episodes, such as Keith Carradine as Pres. Thos. Jefferson or Lou Diamond Phillips as Emiliano Zapata. It was nice to see Mr. Lauria back doing the introductions.

“Meeting of Minds” is now produced approximately monthly by Opening Minds Productions. They will be starting a regular schedule in 2010: Meeting of Minds will be the third Sunday of every month at 7:00pm at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood, starting January 17, 2010.

Upcoming Theatre: Thanksgiving weekend sees us back at the Pasadena Playhouse for “Baby Its You” on November 28. The next week brings us to Van Nuys HS for “The Taming of the Shrew” (12/3, 12/4, and 12/5; we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance). I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference).I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). December 20 brings “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. We’ll be going to the movies on Christmas Day (as well as having Chinese food), and the likely movie is “Nine – The Musical”. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

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.