This is backward. When you attend a play you go from the parking lot to the box office to the show. At the La Jolla Playhouse, you go from the box office back to a car, as if time did a Bermuda Triangle forward hiccup. And you eavesdrop on life: sudden tragedy, goofy comedy, outside-the-box strangeness.
Site-specific theater turns unexpected places into stages. The La Jolla Playhouse began its Without Walls (WoW) program last year with Susurrus. The set was the beautiful San Diego Botanic Garden. The story unfolded on headphones as you walked from scene to scene. This year’s WoW event, Paul Stein’s Car Plays, is as confined as Susurrus was al fresco.
Next to the Mandell Weiss Theatre, 15 cars are parked on a u-shaped side street. Some of the doors are open. “Car hops” in red coats escort a two-person audience to each one. They usually sit in the backseat. An actor, or two, is already inside. Then the doors close and — almost like a gun going off — a 10-minute scene unfolds.
In Dead Battery, the car doesn’t fit the driver. It’s packed with “forgive this mess” clutter: crushed fast-food paper bags, CDs on the dash, and — are those panties? A woman in a bathrobe sits in the driver’s seat. The engine won’t turn over. While waiting for Triple A, she inspects the car for information. Something’s gravely wrong. Furious calls on a cell phone reveal that the car is her son’s. Was her son’s. She breaks down before our eyes.
In the car just up ahead, two men, mid-30s, sit in the front seat, each with a 40-ounce bottle of Ye Olde English 800 (aka “Death Juice”). It’s a 20-year reunion, of sorts. The man riding shotgun’s an obviously successful African-American. The driver — white male, shaved head, volatile twitches — tumbled down a much different path and demands to know why.
Car Plays has three different tracks: “Boulevard,” “Lane,” and “Route.” Each ticket, which looks like a traffic ticket, is good for one track and five 10-minute plays. I saw “Boulevard” last week and am going back for the others. I’ve never experienced anything like it, short of life itself.
When the doors close, you are sealed in. The actors don’t acknowledge you. In some cases they build pressure-cooker intensities. In others you laugh, maybe a foot from their faces. To the credit of the writers, each scene grabs and keeps your full attention (my only gripe: you move so quickly from car to car, there’s no time to process the previous ones — just what would that widow do at the children’s pool?).
And the actors shook up my notions of performance. When someone says “an intimate stage,” the Old Globe’s White Theatre comes to mind, or Ion’s even more cozy space. No matter how near, the actors are still over there, on the other side. An invisible line separates the stage from the house seats.
Car Plays takes place in a completely familiar environment — in a car, after all — and completely foreign. My first impression was “this is too close to be watching actors.” Don’t we both need room to breathe? No. There’s no room, or even time, since each story pulls you in and shoots you forward. You aren’t just watching a play from a safe distance, you’re in it.
It’s clear where Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green is headed the second Ross Gardiner comes through the door. Outgoing Ross is 29. Mr. Green’s an 86-year-old, crotchety shut-in who utters quizzical, three-word sentences. Can you spell b-o-n-d?
At the North Coast Rep, Marty Burnett’s set tips the playwright’s hand before the first knock on the door. Mr. Green’s upper West Side apartment’s a few crumpled newspapers short of qualifying for Hoarders.
Paper bags littering the kitchen floor suggest that he does get out. But recently he stepped off the curb and then looked both ways. Ross almost hit him. A judge ordered six months’ community service: Ross must visit Mr. Green every Thursday at 7 p.m. sharp.
Both are Jewish. But that’s where the link appears to end. Mr. Green, a strict orthodox Jew, was married 59 years and still hasn’t forgiven his wife for passing away. Ross, a practicing Jew, is single. Each has a secret that will drive them apart, then nudge them together in a dual coming-out party.
Back in the ’80s, Bill C. Davis’s Mass Appeal had what its title claimed: more than 100 theaters staged the comedy-drama. Two Roman Catholic priests — the older one complacent, the other a young firebrand — clash about how to preach to their affluent flock. They also harbor secrets. The play moved in easy stages, with crystal-clear conflicts and a heartwarming resolution. In many ways, Visiting Mr. Green is a Jewish Mass Appeal.
The North Coast Rep’s version puts Mr. Green well over the 400 mark. The production, nicely directed by Christopher M. Williams, adds detail and subtlety to a by-the-numbers script.
Robert Grossman’s Mr. Green begins with gravel-gutted bitterness (his half-clogged sink, in Aaron Rumley’s sound design, makes a growl that typifies him). Above all, Grossman creates the sense that Mr. Green clings to his demons for comfort. When he finally lets them go, Grossman makes the breakthrough feel much more earned than merely an inevitable resolution.
Craig De Lorenzo may have twice as many lines as Grossman, and twice the activity. De Lorenzo unpeels Ross, from an upwardly mobile Harvard grad to a young man as troubled, in his own way, as dour Mr. Green. ■
Car Plays, by various authors
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Playing through March 4; for days and times call 858-550-1010
Visiting Mr. Green, by Jeff Baron
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by Christopher M. Williams; cast: Craig De Lorenzo, Robert Grossman; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Renetta Lloyd; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Aaron Rumley
Playing through March 11; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055