LA JOLLA, California -- After 12 seasons in this think-tank disguised as a beach resort, Des McAnuff is stepping down as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Though he will continue to direct shows for his successor, Michael Greif (an excellent director himself who apprenticed with McAnuff as a UCSD student), he chose to end his time as head honcho with a big splashy production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying starring Matthew Broderick as the window-washer turned corporate-climber J. Pierpont Finch.

It's a curious signoff gesture. On the surface, mounting a Broadway-bound star-vehicle revival of a pre-sold hit like Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' 1961 Pulitzer-winning musical might be seen as a safe, crowd-pleasing, even cynical move for a non-profit regional theater putatively established as an alternative to commercial Broadway values. The La Jolla Playhouse has previously accepted contributions from commercial producers (basically, McAnuff's longtime companeros Dodger Productions) for big shows -- some of which went to Broadway (The Who's Tommy) and some of which didn't (80 Days, with a score by Ray Davies of the Kinks) -- but never before has it admitted what used to be a regional-theater no-no: we're making this show not just for our subscribers but to send it on to the Great White Way. And what to make of the opening night curtain call on October 30, when McAnuff, who arrived in La Jolla a lean 30-year-old rock-and-roller in a motorcycle jacket, appeared in a rumpled white suit and middle-aged spread to accept the key to the city from San Diego mayor Nancy Golding?

After seeing the show, I wondered why I felt so queasy. It wasn't that it was a bad show or that McAnuff didn't deserve the mayor's tribute. As New Yorkers will find out for themselves soon enough, it's a dazzling production full of McAnuff's trademark touches -- a hyperkinetic John Arnone set, comic-book Mondrian costumes by Susan Hilferty, and superb casting in even the tiniest roles. (The great Lilias White hides out as the boss's secretary until she suddenly starts channeling Sarah Vaughan in the 11:00 slot.) It's also a smart production. Rather than playing it strictly for nostalgia, McAnuff punches up the tres-'90s parallels (caffeine addiction in the insane production number "Coffee Break," extreme insecurity about unemployment in "The Company Way") and he doesn't soft-pedal the show's nightmare sexual politics. But instead of p.c. piety, McAnuff plays the sexism as much for humor and mythology. The unattractiveness of the male characters is indicated by their suspect manhood (the boss's guilty pleasure is knitting) or downright queeniness (the boss's nephew Bud Frump is played as an evil fag). Although the boss's bimbo girlfriend Hedy LaRue has to run a sleazy Tailhook-like gauntlet while the official company policy on sexual harassment is spouted ("A Secretary Is Not a Toy"), her backlit bump-and-grind entrance makes unmistakeable that, into this testosterone-weak world, the goddess Aphrodite has arrived, and things will never be the same. And McAnuff provocatively wonders how much things have changed for women: when a secretary reveals her highest aspiration in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," the computer-animation backdrop swoops in on a fantasy suburban cottage in a shot that looks just like the opening credits of The Simpsons.

Finally, I realized that what creeped me out about How to Succeed in La Jolla was the material itself. It's not a feel-good show. It basically satirizes-by-glorifying everything that sucks about American corporate life -- idiotic leadership, ruthless and arbitrary rules of social interaction, rigidly enforced heterosexism -- and ends with the reassurance that things will always stay the way they are. It's Brecht with a musical-theater sugar-coating, and like a diet of Scotch and M&M's, it's enough to make you puke.

Here's one of the differences between seeing a show on Broadway vs. in a regional-theater context: I don't know if I would have made the same connections if I hadn't been sitting in the same theater where I witnessed the two best Brecht productions I've ever seen, Peter Sellars' The Visions of Simone Machard (which McAnuff chose to open his first season) and Robert Woodruff's A Man's a Man, in which Bill Irwin played Galy Gay, a sunny faux-naif not unlike Broderick's Finch. There's no way of knowing if the rest of the opening-night crowd for How to Succeed shared my appreciation of the show's Brechtian context; show-biz etiquette hasn't yet invented a form of applause that signals, "This show has made me rethink my entire worldview." Actually, they looked just like rich white people delirious at getting an early peek at next year's Broadway hit. Still, I can't be the only one who recognizes that signing off with How to Succeed could be a witty expression of McAnuff's healthy ambivalence toward the world in which he's become a much-valued insider. It's his way of echoing Lily Tomlin's wistful line, "Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world."

Village Voice, November 1994

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