New Blood at Old Town Hall

Lafayette theater got Kevin Morales to make lemonade out of lemons. He turned it into a full-time job.

A popular view of comedy is that if you accumulate enough comic mishaps — bang zoom — you get hilarity. By that logic, new artistic director Kevin T. Morales’ tenure to date at Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre Company should have been pretty damn hilarious.

Morales was brought in last May to write and direct Let’s Go to the Movies, a musical revue that had been planned for about a year to fill the usual cabaret slot at season’s end. The previous artistic director had intended to create and stage the show himself, but then suddenly had to relocate out of state for his day job without ever writing the show.

Town Hall board president Dennis Erokan, founder of the late BAM magazine, had known Morales since Kevin and Erokan’s daughter D’Arcy were in Guys and Dolls together as teenagers in Danville. He’d seen Morales write and direct a Great Gatsby musical at the Athenian School, and the ambitious production of Into the Woods he staged in the directing program at NYU. In 1999 Erokan helped Morales set up his own company, Venus Rising, through which Morales staged several of his own works as well as acclaimed productions of the musicals Assassins, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Cabaret, On the Town, Annie, and Pippin at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. So when Town Hall suddenly needed a musical written, Erokan knew who to call.

Then-27-year-old Morales was living in Los Angeles doing postproduction on his first movie, having put Venus Rising in “hibernation” because of mounting debts. “Dennis just called me up and said, ‘You think you could write a musical in a couple days?'” he recalls. “I decided I was going to write a show about a guy who had to write a show, and then the show that he writes is going to be about a guy who has to write a show. The thing practically wrote itself in the three or four days that I was calling around trying to get people involved.”

What Morales came up with was beyond anyone’s expectations. What was initially intended to be a pleasant bit of razzmatazz celebrating movie magic became an exquisitely multilayered satire of community theater itself, from board members who fancy themselves actors to starlets jockeying for parts (including old friend D’Arcy, who has become an excellent comedic actress), to the ingenue whose daddy will donate $2,000 for every song she sings. It was hilarious, provocative, and not quite what the suburban community theater had in mind.

“When the board read my first draft, they were like, ‘You can’t do this! You’re totally making fun of our theater!'” Morales says. “But that’s not even what I was making fun of. I had never really seen a show here. I was just trying to point out what doing community theater is like. I said, ‘You’ll thank me when the show gets extended.’ Dennis was like, ‘Hahaha, we never extend a show.'”

But this one they extended. Audiences adored it. So did critics, this one especially. Maybe there’s something to that business about disaster being a perfect recipe for comedy after all.

Knowing a good thing when it bit them on the leg, the Town Hall folks asked Morales to direct two shows already planned for the next season, the cornball Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 and Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party, a script Morales hated but still managed to make funny. After that, he was asked to take over as artistic director from interim director Douglas H. Dildine.

Morales turned disaster to his advantage yet again in March when he accidentally gave Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man its Bay Area debut. Despite the fact that none of the playwright’s other works had been staged locally until Marin Theatre Company put on Life x 3 last November, every theater company around was content merely to do her popular Art, and Town Hall was to be no exception.

The theater had decided to build the entire ’04-’05 season around three of its favorite comic actors, Jerry Motta, Jeremy Koerner, and Randy Anger, so Morales was tapped to direct the three of them in Art. But on what was to be the first day of rehearsal, Koerner quit, then Anger came down with a fever of 102. So Morales wound up looking for a new play for Motta and Sarah Andrews Reynolds — who happened to be free for the next nine weeks — with only thirteen days left before opening night.

Morales had seen The Unexpected Man in London and New York, and figured another Reza play would fill the bill. “It’s really, really smart, and maybe it’s too smart for Lafayette; maybe it’s too smart for me and the actors I have,” he says. “But it never occurred to me that no one had done it. “

In fact Morales was strangely apologetic at the time, because the relatively static, talky play wasn’t what the audience was expecting, and he feared some of them just wouldn’t get it. He knows his audience: the last-minute replacement didn’t sell well, but it attracted a great deal of critical attention to a theater that had kind of fallen off the map.

Though it took its current name in 1992, Town Hall has been around since 1944, when it was founded as the Dramateurs, and lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating theater company in Contra Costa County. “It’s amazing that it’s been around for sixty years, ’cause in recent memory it has not aggressively gone into the community and invited people in,” Morales says.

He is writing a new comedy called Love Lafayette to kick off the season, in which conservative and liberal couples meet to discuss the budding romance between their teenagers, to celebrate the diversity of a community which he hopes to reconnect with for both audience and donations. “Because I’m going to be asking the community for help, I’d better be putting on shows the community wants to see,” he says.

This summer Morales will revive his first Town Hall hit in an expanded version, Let’s Go to the Movies Redux, partly to see what he could do with the concept with more than a few days to write it. It runs through July 2 and moves to Berkeley’s Ashby Stage August 4-14.

Movies’ fictional playwright struggles with the impossible imperative to offend no one and entertain everyone, and now that balancing act is squarely on Morales’ shoulders. His 2005-2006 season is an eclectic mix with the loose theme of “Celebrating Women”: two Morales originals, Love Lafayette and a holiday adaptation of Peter & Wendy; two well-worn musicals, Guys & Dolls and Gypsy; two contemporary plays, Margaret Edson’s Wit and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball’s 5 Women Wearing the Same Dress; and a Halloween version of Macbeth with teens dressed up as superheroes and a choir singing rock songs.

The musicals are almost a given for someone who made his name demonstrating that they can be done well on the cheap. A drama like Wit, however, about a John Donne scholar struggling with ovarian cancer, is a bold choice, not least because it contains nudity. “Even though this community would not necessarily put up with nudity onstage in a gratuitous sense, they’ll put up with any of the things that are technically taboo if fundamentally the show is good,” Morales says. “I’m not just trying to offer safe, easily sellable shows. I’m trying to honor my obligation to the community.”

If this theatrical smorgasbord gives the impression of a young guy with a lot of big ideas pilling out in several directions at once, that infusion of energy may be exactly what Town Hall needs. “The concern on the board in hiring me was that I was going to do shows that Lafayette wouldn’t want to see — because I did Assassins and I did Cabaret,” Morales says. “And I’m like, ‘I did Annie and On the Town! I grew up in this community.’ I know what they want to see, and I’ll definitely give them things that they want to see. But I also know a little bit about the shadowy underbelly of the suburbs, concerns that they don’t talk about. So we’re also picking shows that the community needs, even if they don’t know it.”

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