Los Angeles Theater Review: SLEUTH (Little Fish Theatre Company in San Pedro)

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by Jason Rohrer on March 14, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


The kind of intimate theater I saw Sunday is targeted for elimination by Actors’ Equity Association: Low-tech projects, produced of donated resources without hope of profit. One of Equity’s arguments, repeated recently by its president, is that a proliferation of tiny nonprofits puts the development of commercial theater at a disadvantage. The union wants to make community theaters like San Pedro’s Little Fish pay its actors what it calls a living wage, for work they now do for gas money, ostensibly because (among other excuses) Little Fish et al. unfairly compete with Nederlander houses like the Pantages.


The “It’s Good for the Industry” song goes flat when sung by a labor advocacy group. Regardless, the tune is false. The majority of 99 seat houses are incapable of competing with the sets at the Mark Taper Forum, or the quality of the acting at South Coast Rep, or, certainly, both at once. The experience of going to the Geffen is not the experience of going to Little Fish.

There are many reasons for this. True, the audience willing to pay upward of $100 to see An Act of God at the swanky Ahmanson, near the world-famous Disney Hall downtown, is not disincentivized from paying $27 to see Sleuth at Little Fish, 20 miles south by the harbor. But Sunday’s audience, which paid $27 to sit on straight chairs in a converted commercial space in San Pedro, would not have seen an elevation in the quality of their outing at $100 a seat. This audience didn’t come for a Music Center experience. It came to have fun.

For the giggly blue-collar party sitting house left on Sunday, drinking wine before and during the matinee was as much a part of the outing as the play itself. The play was a reason to socialize, a relaxed, affordable group entertainment. All of which is indisputably to the good.


Normally I’m a theatergoer easily disturbed by a chatty audience, but not at Sleuth on Sunday. If a lady wanted to call out something about “tea and crumpets” when in fact the character (if not the actor) was eating caviar on toast, it was fine with me. When her friends yelled “yummy” and “I want some,” I did not feel the resentment I would have felt at a top-end 99-seat show by Boston Court or Coeurage or Rogue Machine or Pacific Resident Theatre.

Within a minute of lights-up, I knew that this place, this time, could not fairly be held to the standards of professional show business as I would set them. I seek a different communion, more stodgy maybe. After the well-practiced raucousness of Little Fish’s pre-show announcement I would have been stupid to expect this audience to behave like a Geffen audience. The speaker made an admonishment not to touch or talk to the performers, all the while whipping the crowd into a loud call-and-response and mentioning by the way that sometimes couples made out in the front row. The speaker even jokingly apologized to the audience in advance for the tipsy ladies seated behind me who later self-fulfilled the prophecy. This is a theater catering to a known quantity.

After the pre-show ended with a chummy pitch to buy, buy, buy cookies, cookies, cookies (and wine) and donate, donate, donate to the cause, cause, cause, it would have been willful of me to expect a production marked by finesse or restraint or ingenuity.


In many ways, as produced by Little Fish, Sunday’s matinee of Sleuth was not a bad show. There was a nice solid realistic set, well-painted and well-dressed; the costumes were fine, the props adequate, the script venerable, the acting pretty strong. The audience was enthused to imbibe this cleverly verbose 1970 send-up/paragon of the Agatha Christie school, in which a rich English mystery writer takes a hokey and murderous revenge upon his wife’s lover.

I may have been the only one who thought that the polished, self-contained actor with the fine command of dialect rushed his moments of discovery and trampled those of his co-star, who if not as skilled at elocution gave the more sensitive and generous, less bombastic performance. Maybe only I thought that a better actors’ director would have nudged these talents into the same tonal and stylistic universe, and that a beat-by-beat investigation of the text should have led the director to differentiate and frame, or in some way to exploit, the many opportunities for jeopardy and stakes provided by the author.

The dismay at seeing a remarkably unconvincing false beard stand juxtaposed against far more successful physical properties: not mine alone, surely; I have no doubt at least the actor who had to wear it would have preferred a prosthetic that didn’t undo his good work. But it’s possible only I had a problem with a single decanter pouring Scotch and brandy in successive scenes.


A larger complaint is that I have no idea why this producer and this director wanted to stage this show, which depends for plot points and overall credibility upon top shelf theatricality, on a shoestring budget at a venue with limited human and technical resources, unsuited to the specific type of mystery and magic the play can provide. I found the production prosaic and unimaginative. This staging of a famously twisty-turny ride fooled, surprised, alarmed nobody.

The audience, though, didn’t come for that. It had a really good time with the half or two-thirds of the play’s potential realized here. The audience was very appreciative, laughing at virtually every one of Anthony Shaffer’s bon mots in this hoary whodunit. Many stood to cheer the bows. As far as what I wanted in terms of character, theme, texture, spiritual and artistic vision: By the lights of my audience, Little Fish did exactly what it was supposed to do. It was I who came to the wrong place for the kind of theater experience I like.

Not coincidentally, it’s another of Equity’s traditional anti-99 arguments that flooding the market with mediocre theater is bad for theater in general. It will be no surprise that I concede the point. Morally and temperamentally inclined toward total unregulated freedom of artistic expression, I have to acknowledge the negative effect mediocre theater has had on my theater attendance. Soon after moving to L.A., I stopped going to theaters unless I was working in them. All but once or twice a year, I still keep this rule 20 years on.


There are strong points in favor of Little Fish. For one thing it’s a rare example of an over-a-decade-old woman-dominated company – the board of directors, and the artistic and design leadership, is overwhelmingly female. All Sleuth’s principal designers but one were women. I think it’s not unrelated that women find it a safe, happy place to come and cut loose a little on a Sunday afternoon. As community services go, that’s not a small one.

So what, Equity? So what if both my experiences of this small theater, a decade apart, have disappointed me? I won’t be back, that’s what; no more, no less. How many chances does a company get in a city with a few hundred? I have not found here what I seek, and will seek it elsewhere. No harm, no foul, nolo contendere.

If one can judge by volume, Sunday’s sold-out crowd did achieve its goal. Here is an L.A. neighborhood getting what it wants from a local product made by and for locals. How often can the behemoth Center Theatre Group – “L.A.’s Theatre Company” – say anything like that, given its track record of employing New Yorkers? How about addressing that, Equity, on the way to making Los Angeles a better theater town? No? Okay, then, should you and I just try to snob Little Fish out of existence? To whose benefit? Not San Pedro’s, surely?

photos by Mickey Elliot

Little Fish Theatre Company
777 S. Centre St in San Pedro
Wed & Thurs at 8
ends on March 31, 2016
for tickets, call 310.512.6030 or visit Little Fish

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