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Laughing in the Face of Death : Director places the emphasis on humor in mystery-comedy 'Making a Killing,' the debut play of theatrical company Zia Productions.

November 04, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — It's interesting to note that during the past couple of decades, during an era when most playwrights have been writing wild and crazy, black social comedies or theatrical political tracts--both serious and not--that some writers are still turning out that old staple of popular theater, the mystery-comedy.

Though John Nassivera's "Making a Killing" was written and first produced just 10 years ago, the production opening tonight at the Limelight Playhouse marks the play's West Coast premiere. It also signals the debut of a new theatrical company called Zia Productions.

Zia, composed of producers Michael Bauer and Theresa Sanchez, who also appear in the play, is dedicated, say its principals, to entertainment. That means theater that helps an audience forget the sad state of affairs outside the playhouse.

The play's director, Katherine Huston, who has directed four other comedies this year, thinks laughter is a medicine that helps people over life's rough spots.

"Life itself has a sense of humor," Huston says. "The more pressure people are put under, the people who can handle it with a sense of humor are the ones that I find most interesting. That's one of the things that drew me to this play when I read it. The characters in the play, when their backs are against the wall, can handle it, can look at it in a funny way. Plus, I've always, since the time I was little, liked to be scared and then laugh about it. It's a good release."

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Her own sense of humor in the face of disaster was honed when she was very young, in her home state of Texas. Laughter as a lifeline was all around her, and the people with a sense of humor were the people she grew up liking and wanting to emulate.

Huston recalls: "Those are the ones who can say, 'The grasshoppers have eaten the crop. The hail has flattened it to the ground.' They look out at it and say with a chuckle, 'Well, I'm glad I didn't buy the car.' "

Huston's enthusiasm for the denizens of "Making a Killing" and their ability to laugh at themselves also derives from the play's milieu of Broadway actors, writers, agents and producers, tough characters who soften under duress.

"You're not quite sure what's going on," Huston explains. She says the characters all have moments when they uncover the honest humanity beneath their stereotypically brash surface. "They're very dimensional. You can certainly play them going very broad, but that's the fun part, to be able to go for both. And a theater this size is small enough that I can do the intimate moments as well as the big scary moments. I like a play I can do that with. It's all there."

Bauer, who is co-producing the play with Sanchez, an experienced actress, has a 15-year track record in the theater, both in New York and Los Angeles. He has appeared in New York touring productions such as "Pippin" and films such as Horizon Pictures' new "Liar's Club," starring Wil Wheaton.

Bauer agrees with Huston that laughter is the best medicine. "The public has changed," he says. "People have gotten serious, too serious maybe. They've left that child side of them, that fun side. They've left that somewhere, and they need to see that. That's what brought me to this play. Let's be a bunch of kids. People need to see something entertaining, seeing the lighter side to a difficult situation. People need to laugh a lot more."

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Although many times characters in the mystery-comedy genre seem to be cardboard figures, Huston, Bauer and Sanchez are fascinated with the depth of the characters in "Making a Killing." Bauer and Sanchez also feel it's the right property to stretch their actors' muscles.

"You have to train," Bauer says. "You have to keep that craft honed, otherwise you begin losing it. And when the time comes that you need it, it may not be there. So this is a necessity."

And then there's an actor's much-prized sense of humor, which often has to be honed too. "If you can't laugh at yourself ," Huston maintains, "eventually everyone will be laughing at you."

Where and When

What: "Making a Killing."

Location: Limelight Playhouse, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Dec. 11.

Price: $10 to $12.

Call: (818) 797-6615.

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