Intense friendship derailed by jealousy and/or competition. It makes a good story. Most of us do not have to scratch very deeply to bring such a memory to mind. The two midcentury architectural icons, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra shared such a story. Pals as architecture students in Vienna, Neutra followed Schindler’s footsteps to the United States; each spent time working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s offices. Schindler led the way to Los Angeles and invited Neutra to join him a decade later in his Kings Road House and studio. The two families lived and worked together for five years: separate living quarters, but communal kitchen, social, and working spaces — a utopian dream house that inevitably led to a bitter 23 year separation. Rudolph Schindler (John Nielsen) visionary and flamboyant lothario. Richard Neutra (Raymond Xifo) congenial, more conservative, family man. It does not take special powers to see that these two, no matter how aligned artistically, were not a match made in heaven. The constant proximity could only have hastened and intensified their rift.
In 1953, these two “Princes of Kings Road” found themselves in the same room at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Schindler embittered and dying of cancer, Neutra, still actively practicing architecture and teaching at UCLA, now hospitalized for a minor heart attack. From this coincidence playwright Tom Lazarus has spun a tale of sparing and connection. On his deathbed Schindler is elegant in his perfectly pressed white pajamas. He flirts with Nurse Rothstein (Heather Robinson) and selfishly tries to discourage her from her dream of becoming a stewardess; she should remain right here to take care of him. Rumpled Neutra, meanwhile, is gently encouraging and thoroughly appropriate, though not incapable of throwing a few barbs of his own at his erstwhile partner. The best of among them is his reference to Schindler’s “Achilles schlong.”
Playwright Tom Lazarus has a fine ear for dialogue. He has envisioned this real life meeting as a sparring match that turns into a more congenial, rapprochement. Actors Nielson and Xifo have perfect pitch. Nielson embodies silver fox-dom, and rumpled Xifo is the charming old imp you want to get to know. The Ensemble Theatre production takes place in The Neutra Institute and Museum. The stark room, with exposed fluorescent lighting and circa 1955 linoleum tiles on the floor, is an easy stand in for a mid-century hospital room. Robinson bustles about efficiently trying to maintain a therapeutic peace between the two. Periodically photos of their projects are projected on a screen. Upon seeing the play, Neutra’s son, who was in the room when this chance meeting took place, told Lazarus that Schindler’s only comment was, “Oh, it’s you.”
If you are an L.A. architecture buff this is 75 minute presentation is as close to a must-see piece as you are likely to find. The story will intrigue you. If you are not, the writing, direction, and performances are tight enough “The Princes of Kings Road” is still well worth your while.