It’s impossible to drive anywhere in Los Angeles and not notice the eclectic architecture is as ubiquitous as the palm trees. From Old Pasadena’s distinctive masonry to the steel high-rises sprouting up like weeds in regentrified areas, part of the city’s charm is in the pioneering flair towards individualistic design, if not, like its residents, relentlessly competing for attention.
Two architects, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler transcended the aesthetics of their time, contributing in large part to the appearance of modernist structures in the vast L.A. landscape. Both men treated their work as an art form, with Schindler concerned with function and ingenuity, and Neutra focused on functionality and form. Born only miles apart in Vienna, their collegiate but friendly relationship inspired a seemingly perfect match of beauty, brains and boldness, with Schindler inviting Neutra and his wife Dione to live in his West Hollywood home, built in 1922, known now as the Schindler House, but more romantically referred to by visiting bohemian artists as the House on Kings Road. The men created the Architectural Group for Industry and Commerce (AGIC), working side-by-side but on separate projects with the exception of their un-built collaborative design for the League of Nations palace in Geneva.
Their friendship and partnership quickly deteriorated for a variety of reasons, but the simplest explanation may have been in their disparate temperaments. Schindler, a womanizer and egotist enjoyed throwing wild parties much to the displeasure of straight-laced Neutra, who admired Schindler, but preferred harmonious consistency in both design and personal character. Schindler and Neutra were the darlings of architecture following after their predecessor, Frank Lloyd Wright, who became a household name. Both men inevitably came into their own prominence, but either through jealousy, circumstances or twists of ill fate, Schindler and Neutra inevitably parted company on bad terms.
History can be a sketchy way of filling in the blanks. Veteran screenwriter and TV writer Tom Lazarus saw the briefest of sketches one night while watching a documentary on architectural photographer Julius Shulman. More of an aside than anything in-depth, Lazarus learned about the quirk of fate that put Schindler and Neutra together in a hospital room at Cedars of Lebanon 23 years after their rift. Immediately, the idea of a story, particularly a play, gripped Lazarus as he combed through books and letters—anything pertaining to Schindler and Neutra. Already an architecture enthusiast, Lazarus delved into the possibilities and the perchance of coincidence that may have happened when both men were recuperating in the same room.
Two years later, Lazarus had a script. Two play readings later, one at Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 2015 Winterfest, and the audience’s reaction confirmed Lazarus’ natural gut instinct for story—he had a hit on his hands. Both humorous and touching, the characters of Schindler and Neutra are as fallible as they are complex, especially in terms of their relationship, with undercurrents of bitterness juxtaposed against mutual respect. Acting as a referee between the grumpy old men is Nurse Rothstein, a thoroughly modern-minded young woman with aspirations of travelling as a stewardess. Schindler, always the skirt-chaser flirts with Rothstein as Neutra defends her honor, and ambitions. Invariably, the men recollect the nostalgia of their careers, opening up old wounds, settling scores and, ultimately, burying the hatchet once and for all, albeit in a truce of somber wisdom.
Lazarus admits he is never really finished on his plays, particularly “Princes of Kings Road.” Every rehearsal, every reading, every day is another opportunity to tinker, flesh out, research, examine and discover one more hidden gem in the quick-paced dialogue. The play itself is a page-turner, little surprise for a former head writer on several network and cable TV shows. Playwrighting, Lazarus readily admits, is more artistically satisfying. A painter too, Lazarus began writing plays rather late in his career when his wife’s involvement with EST/LA piqued his interest. He is a member of the Playwrights Unit of Ensemble Studio Theater/LA where two of his other plays — Do Unto Others and Silas — have also received staged readings as part of the Winterfest series.
Now it seems Lazarus is fully dedicated to the process when he’s not teaching rewrites and screenwriting at UCLA’s Extension, working on screenplays and researching other ideas for future plays. Idle isn’t Lazarus’ bent, and while he speaks with a direct frankness, his ebullience is difficult to contain when it comes to this show, staged in all places, at the Neutra Institute and Museum in Silverlake.
Serendipity, as it was for Schindler and Neutra, is the invisible character in “The Princes of Kings Road” as much as it has been a key determinate in the play’s journey. Neutra’s son, Dion and his wife attended the reading at Winterfest. Afterwards, they invited Lazarus to stage his play in a site-specific production in the office/work area within the Neutra designed building. More fortune would soon follow when Lazarus found an old cassette recording of Neutra’s wife, Dione, a master cellist and concert singer, infusing the music into the background of the play. Even more startling is one of the cast members resides in a Schindler designed apartment. The connections thrill Lazarus, but also validate his first stirrings of a story about these singular men.
Given the site-specific environs of the production, the L.A. history embedded in the play, and the what if? element of a true event, “The Princes of Kings Road” is just starting its journey in Silverlake. With the luck it has been having, Lazarus, (who never plans for the future), would like to see continued runs, possibly in NYC, but is open to wherever the “Princes” take him. Unlike a building, stories are never finished, not completely, and this play has taken on a life of its own. Yet, much like the characters Lazarus constructed from research and envisioning, by the play’s end Schindler and Neutra passionately sketch a blueprint, side-by-side once again. The best medicine for any artist is in the act of doing, the what if’s, the potential and the experiments.
It’s this commonality in Lazarus and his subjects that seem to shape and mold artists of any discipline or field, and it may be the reason Neutra and Schindler are so vivid in their depiction. Lazarus laughs, describing the process, “Like an actor, I become the characters. I know what these characters are going to say. Sometimes I forget where the research begins and ends. I’m about telling the truth.” When asked if by becoming the characters, they in turn influence him, Lazarus mulls it over before replying, “It’s a one-way street. I become them, but I don’t think they become me.” Artists, nevertheless, belong to the same kin and this knowledge along with Lazarus’ interest in architecture and dynamic situations certainly adds a palpable realism to his play. It crests on comedic highs, but digs at emotional depths as a counterpoint.
“My hope is that this play touches and entertains audiences. My goal as a writer is to reach people. When I saw the reaction at Winterfest, I knew this was special. I felt like I had succeeded.”
As assuredly as Schindler and Neutra were titans of L.A. architecture, this play is a testament to their legacy, their relationship and humanity. One would like to believe Lazarus’ has time-travelled to that hospital room and something very like what he wrote actually happened. Dion suggested as much, but ultimately, only Schindler and Neutra will ever know the real truth. Both men continue to influence architects to this day. Their creations still stand, as sleek and modern as any contemporary architecture, and maybe even more so as the pioneers of function and aesthetics. “The Princes of Kings Road” will inspire audiences to explore the city with a bit more of a seasoned eye, seeking a Schindler building or a Neutra house, and think fondly of the men, flaws and all, at peace with themselves and each other.
“The Princes of Kings Road”
Runs Sept. 11-Oct. 4
Fri & Sat @ 8 p.m. & Sundays @ 5 p.m.
Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake
2379 Glendale Blvd.
Silverlake, CA 90039