More than pure, delicious entertainment, “The Princes of Kings Road,” a world premiere produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles in association with Dion Neutra and the Neutra Museum and Gallery, makes the Twentieth Century history of architecture in Southern California, as exemplified by the careers of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, come alive. One might think that the coincidence of two feuding architects, estranged for twenty-three years, winding up by chance in the same room at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, is pure dramatic fantasy, but no, it is fact, and provides the framework for this enthralling seventy-five minute chamber play.
Austrian architects Schindler and Neutra were acquainted in Vienna and moved in the same circle of Belle-Époque brilliance that included Freud, Klimt, and Schönberg. Schindler, drawn to America by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, emigrated first and settled in Los Angeles. Several years later, he invited Neutra and his wife Dione to join him in the New World. The Neutras eventually settled in Los Angeles with Schindler and his wife Pauline in Schindler’s famous Kings Road house, deemed by architects to be first among the “best houses of all time in L.A.” In partnership, they created architectural modernism in America. Schindler had a flamboyant, artistic vision, while Neutra, no less visionary, excelled in bold engineering.
Privately, the couples were opposites. Schindler was a sexual libertine and his wife was a difficult, free spirited, artistic type while the Neutras were dedicated monogamists put off by the rampant sexuality of 1920s Hollywood. Eventually, as Neutra started to eclipse his colleague, jealousy and rancor brought an end to their partnership and they never saw each other again until serious illnesses found them side-by-side in Cedars of Lebanon.
The action of Tom Lazarus’ tightly scripted piece is the fierce, bitter, spirited hashing over of the past by two of the greatest men in their profession. With a nurse functioning primarily as a referee and foil, the two men go at it limited only by the seriousness of their physical conditions. The aggrieved Schindler (John Nielsen) seethes with anger at the slights he believes to have been perpetrated by Neutra (Raymond Xifo). The actors are ideally cast, both with amazing likenesses to their historical characters. Mr. Nielsen as Schindler is tall, handsome and flirtatious with Nurse Rothstein (Heather Robinson). As Neutra, Mr. Xifo, short, compact and elegant of bearing, counters his ex-partner’s wrath with reasonableness. As with all good drama, “The Princes of Kings Road” is leavened with humor. The performances, directed by the playwright, are excellent – honest, intense and as natural as breath.
As presented at the Neutra Institute, the audience is in close proximity to the players, literally in the same hospital room. The lighting is office fluorescent, with smaller bedside lights providing ambience. The beds and other props are totally credible as articles of the 1950s. Piano and cello music for prelude and interlude is more than ideal, especially when one discovers that some of the music for the production is taken from vintage recordings by Richard Neutra’s wife Dione, a concert singer and cello master.
“The Princes of Kings Road” brings two great minds, essential geniuses of modern American architecture, vividly to life. It is great theatre and great history. The show continues through October 4 at The Neutra Institute and Gallery, a building designed by Richard Neutra. What could be more appropriate? See it while you can.