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The La Jolla Playhouse calls its site-specific program "Without Walls" and "WoW." For Paul Stein's Car Plays, both apply.

Actors perform 10 minute pieces inside a car. Also inside: two audience members. Scenes unfold. Some, like the mother learning her son's fate, are tragic. Others comic, like the drunk teenager who could get "lucky" but is stuck in a cab because he can't pay the fare.

For all four passengers, drama happens, since Car Plays takes spectators out of their comfort zones.

In a way, we've become used to closeness with strangers. The advent of cell phones made us privy to private matters - from the deeply personal to the grindingly mundane. Car Plays takes this invasion of privacy a step further: in some you want to comfort a character; in others, you become an accessory to mayhem.

But you can neither help nor leave. And things happen so quickly, in such tight quarters, it's hard to remind yourself that "this is just a play."

But what's it like for an actor? How to prepare? How to perform, literally, without walls?

Eddie Yaroch plays the father in Alright. His angry son (Charles Evans, Jr.) tucks himself into a womb in the back seat.

"High drama happens in cars," says Yaroch. "I broke up with a girlfriend in one."

At least they were alone. In Alright the eyes of the audience are "right there! You're inches away from somebody's face. You waft their perfume!"

"It's like being stuck in an elevator. Tension builds and builds. It's only broken when the doors open."

Working with director Robert Castro, Yaroch and Evans spent half their rehearsals in a car, with Castro riding shotgun.

"The earliest draft ran 12 and a half minutes," says Yaroch, "three longer than we wanted. Every extra pause or indulgence sent us into OT."

They had to keep it tight. "We surrendered to a rigorous and disciplined process," says Castro, on the theater faculty at UCSD. "We couldn't add or take away a single word."

They decided to treat spectators as eavesdroppers. Be prepared to ad lib, if necessary, but stress forward momentum. "Don't let the scene fall back on itself," says Yaroch. "Do, and the energy is sapped.

"The best thing about being so close is the eavesdropping. We're all sharing these intimate/awkward/intense/suspenseful moments. Once those doors shut, there's a feeling of 'uh-oh, what're we in for?'"

Audience reactions range from "attentive listening to gut-busting laughter to fidgeting to tears (as actors who haven't seen each other's plays, we're just as curious as the audience why someone's yelling in the street or begging for help)."

Car Plays takes place in 15 parked cars. Spectators attend one of three, five car segments. That's the same play five times in a hour. On Thursdays and Fridays, actors perform the scene 15 times, on Saturdays and Sundays, 20.

"It's like the movie Groundhog Day, says Yaroch, "this surreal feeling of doing it over and over - like you're trapped in a time warp.

"In a film you might do multiple takes, but there's time in between for adjustments and notes. This is rattatat-tat relentless - and exhilarating!"


La Jolla Playhouse, parking lot, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, playing through March 4.

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