Radio is a medium in which words and voice are crucial. And we are lucky to have in our midst the Pacific Resident Theatre company, which is producing not just a classic theatrical satire (Rhinoceros by Ionesco, opening this Saturday), but two radio plays by Anthony Minghella, “Cigarettes and Chocolate,” and “Hang Up,” both directed by Michael Peretzian.

If you’re not familiar with Minghella, he won the Best Director Academy Award in 1996 for The English Patient, and was nominated for best adapted screenplay for it and later for The Talented Mr. Ripley.

And Peretzian’s directorial skills are personally familiar. At KCRW one of the most wonderful radio drama productions we ever presented was Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” which Peretzian directed both onstage and later in our studio. No matter how many times I heard it, I was brought to tears by its poignancy.

What I did not know is that Peretzian had a long career as an agent and that Minghella was a client. In an email interview Peretzian explained that in 1988 his client, Robert Egan, then Producing Director at the Taper, was directing Minghella’s “Made in Bangkok” (I was in the audience for this production and remember it well). “I absolutely loved the play,” Peretzian wrote, “and thankfully, after meeting me at a small Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, (Minghella) said yes to me representing him in America. We were close friends until he passed away suddenly in 2008, just three months after I decided to quit being an agent to direct plays here in Los Angeles.

I asked what prompted Peretzian’s leap from agent to director. “I left because it was time. I found myself dying in the agency world. My clients were brilliant and talented; they stimulated me in a 38-year career, but that was not enough primarily because the agency business had changed.”

He continued, “Quality and commerce were no longer mutually exclusive options, and I no longer felt I belonged in a field where the business model emphasized the need to represent more writers who could generate a large commission for writing a film like the sequel to Transformers, which I would never care to see nor be associated with. So I went back to recapture the passion I had as a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Film and Television, where I received a MA in Theatre History, and a MFA in Directing for the Theatre.”

Why put a radio play on stage? “In radio plays, the power of the human voice, when conveying emotions and ideas, is so strong and intimate. The challenge was to mount these plays as readings, but instead of having an actor reading the stage directions, to incorporate sound effects that were used in the radio version, and let those elements— the voice, the lighting and the sound, and even the silence at certain points—convey the emotions and ideas of these wonderfully messy lives of people with a human capacity to love and to hurt each other.”

Peretzian’s work as a director has been highly lauded. Rogue Machine’s “Dying City” by Christopher Shinn won the LA Ovation Award for Best Production, in addition to being a critics’ pick in 2013; Peretzian was nominated for best director. These days he says, “Mostly I have been directing plays by my former clients, since I left agenting in 2007. I directed ‘Red Dog Howls’ and ‘Still Life’ by Alex Dinelaris at Rogue Machine, and a revival of Christopher Hampton’s ‘Tales from Hollywood’ at the Odyssey Theatre. I am lucky in that I direct plays only when I find one that I love and is worth my time, without the financial pressure to work and pay the rent.”

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At least I know I’m not alone. Charles McNulty, theatre reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote what I thought as I sat in the back row of the Mark Taper Forum, trying to understand Mary-Louise Parker in “Heisenberg”— does the character have a speech impediment? Many of the people I overheard after the play said things like, “At first I thought she was deaf.”

And that, sadly, is the best I can say about “Heisenberg,” which I had been looking forward to seeing and was very disappointed by. McNulty had a seat closer to the stage for review purposes and could hear the lines that others were laughing about but that I could only ask, “What did she say?”

I’m also unclear about the stage set up, with people seated on two sides of a central platform. I assume it’s because the play begins at a railway station, and trains come and go in different directions on both tracks. It’s probably a reflection of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that you can never truly measure the exact position and speed of an object because everything behaves like both a particle and a wave, and that the influence of human observation interferes with the measurement.

I guess that’s the conceit as 40-ish Georgie, Mary-Louise Parker’s untrustworthy, highly flighty character, plants a kiss on a stranger (Alex, played by Denis Arndt) at a train station and weasels her way into the 75-year-old solitary butcher’s heart. She smashes into his life like a ball of fiery energy that breaks up his solid matter – Hadron Collider style. Is anything she says believable? Is she conning him or does she have real feelings? Does he care? Will his encounter with her enliven his life?

I am sure I would have liked this play had I been able to hear more than half of the lines.


Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. 


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