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In Search of Elvis : 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' explores drama of two fans' obsession with The King.

November 11, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

BURBANK — Attention, all loyalists to The King. Elvis sighting impending.

Now, writer Adam Winston doesn't want his new play, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (which began previews this week and opens Nov. 17 at the Victory Theatre) to be pigeonholed as an Elvis sighting--even though a guy looking a lot like Elvis lands in the play's setting of a dingy Lower East Side apartment.

And, to be sure (without giving Winston's game away) it's not quite the sighting fans might be expecting. Winston and collaborator/actor Robert Factor suggest that "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is about Elvis sightings and why some people need them.

Factor understands the desire. "I'm a pretty big fan," he says, sitting in the Victory lobby with Winston and director Robert A. Ferretti. "Not like the two women in the play, Lisa and Marie. Not fanatical. But pretty big. I was collecting Elvis stuff years ago. And ever since I started rehearsals on this (in the role of the would-be King), I started collecting things again. Elvis watches, things like that. I can't rehearse in my tennis shoes. I've got to wear some wild blue or red shoes like the kind Elvis would wear."

A quick glance at Factor's feet confirm it: Today, he's wearing red suede shoes.

Factor, a longtime member of the Colony Studio Theatre, was talking with Winston more than a year ago about a story idea he had about an Elvis poseur seducing two women. "Maybe it all started as a way for me to play Elvis, which I've always wanted to do," says Factor.

Winston and Factor, who both work in the NBC studio mail room--which, in a bit of kismet, is where Factor met Ferretti several years ago--talked about the story and worked and reworked ideas.

A year ago, Winston says, "I had enough to go on, said goodby to Bob, and went off and wrote the first draft in three weeks. That's how I work. If I spend too much time on a script, I get bogged down. Get it out, then rewrite."

What the 33-year-old Winston concocted was a tale of confused, alienated young New Yorkers living in "Alphabet City," an especially grimy section of Manhattan east of Washington Square. When discussing the characters with Winston, Ferretti says, "I asked him, 'Who the hell would live there?' And Adam looked at me and said, 'I did!' "

"I start with lost, forlorn, sorry people," Winston says, describing roommates and self-styled organizers of The Church of Elvis, Lisa (played by Darcy Lee) and Marie (Joleene Lutz). "This is the kind of place they would live, and I think, this is the kind of obsession they would hold onto.


"But I'm not poking fun at them for it," Winston insists. "I want to make that clear. Lisa, especially, holds on to her belief. It gets her through the day. Who are we to say that it's wrong, or crazy?"

Ferretti is often found behind a movie camera directing shorts and feature films, or in tiny, dark editing rooms as chief editor on such films as "Die Hard 2" and "Under Siege." More and more, he says that he wants to be in a theater, working with his pal Factor. (Ferretti has already directed Factor in three productions.)

"When I first read Adam's play," says Ferretti, "it was clear how well-written it was. I instantly fell in love with these characters. I already knew what a fan Bob was, but Adam had really fleshed it out into something more than a silly Elvis comedy.

"As lost as the souls in this play are, there's hope for them at the end," he adds. "It reminds me of one night when I was driving a friend home from a screening in Hollywood, and we were going on, complaining about something. Suddenly, I saw an old woman without arms or legs going across the street in her wheelchair. And she looked like she was on an appointment, that she knew what she was doing. My friend and I looked at each other and wondered what we had to complain about. I get the same sensation from this play."

For its writer and director, such sensations are grounded in the story. "In anything I do," Ferretti, 45, says, "whether it's cutting a movie, or setting up a shot or directing my cast here, it's all about story. Storytelling is a trait that I've definitely picked up over the years."

And this story, with its search for the Church of Elvis, is hardly far-fetched in Factor's view: "Hey, these kind of people are everywhere. Some of them came for our auditions, just because of the Elvis theme. They couldn't act; they were just Elvis fanatics."

Soon after, Factor made another Elvis fanatic sighting, a case of life truly imitating art. "On the day of the first reading," he says, "I spotted an item in The Times about people forming a Church of Elvis in Colorado!"

Where and When

What: "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

Location: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays. Ends Dec. 24.

Price: $12.50 to $14.

Call: (818) 841-5421.

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