You hear the why-do-theater question a lot in show business, particularly in Los Angeles with its 99-seat Plan for small playhouses. Granted, it's hard work, and you don't get much pay--if any.
But ask any actor or playwright or director. If he's been around theater at all, the answer is as obvious as the nose on his face. The old saw about greasepaint in the blood isn't a myth. Terry Becker and Sol Saks are proof.
The two veterans are responsible for "Faces of Love" at Theatre West. Becker, who is directing, is a familiar face thanks to a long stint as Chief Sharkey in the TV series, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." He also has been behind the camera on such hits as "Room 222" and "Mission Impossible."
Saks, the play's author, began his career in radio, writing for such memorable golden age shows as "Duffy's Tavern" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." In television he's remembered as the creator of "Bewitched" and one of TV's most intelligent comedies, "Mr. Adams and Eve."
The magnet of live theater always draws these men back to the stage, to the inimitable wonder of live actors creating magic without aid of a cathode ray tube.
"I'm like a little kid," Saks says. "I loved theater when I was a teenager in Chicago, and to this day I go to the theater, whether it's a small theater or downtown at the Music Center. When the room goes dark, my heart starts to pound."
As the overture begins, Becker says he's lifted up, no matter how tired he is. "It's the contact with the audience," he says. "You're right there. You're doing it, and the audience loves you for doing what you're doing. That's why actors who work in television or films like to come back to the theater."
Certainly the rewards aren't monetary. A Broadway producer once offered Saks $600 for an option on a play, but wanted it rewritten before handing over the money. The rewrite took four weeks and cost Saks a bundle. Back home in Hollywood, Saks was one of television's most successful writers. His income made Broadway's $600 look paltry.
Then there was always the onus of being from Hollywood. New York reviewers never passed up a chance to mention that.
"The toughest thing I had against me was that I was from Southern California," says Saks. "The second thing was that I was in comedy. The third thing was television. And I was in sitcom. The fourth is that I was successful. They hated me for that. And I hate the word 'sitcom.' We didn't write situation comedy then. It was character-driven comedy."
Likewise, Saks' short plays that comprise "Faces of Love" are character-driven comedies about modern issues.
"It's today," Becker says. "It goes from attempted love to old love, twisted love to obsessive love. It's about the irony of love. But with all the negatives, there's a very strong positive: that somewhere there's a solid kernel of feeling."
Saks explains with a grin that, "Love doesn't make the world go 'round, but it makes you care whether the world's going to go 'round or not."
Becker adds: "As Sol says, it doesn't make the world go 'round, but it gives you a lot of flat tires. But this isn't just about love. Sol's saying so many other things. In one of the plays, he gets very political. This isn't Neil Simon, who's kind of surfacy and funny, and very glib."
Becker has been a member of Theatre West since its early days, a couple of decades ago. And this isn't the first time Theatre West has presented Saks' material. When they want to let the greasepaint flow freely through their veins, this is where they come. Just like the audiences.
"The theater will always be with us," Saks says. "Audiences love the theater, too. Why do people come here? They've got 40 channels, or a movie at seven and a half dollars. And they still come here."
* "Faces of Love," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; $15. (213) 851-7977.
Another Face of Love: A different facet of the gender war is the subject of a new play by Lisa Soland, whose first play, "The Name Game," was successful a couple of years ago at Hollywood's Tamarind Theatre. That play won the Harmony Gold Award and has been published by Samuel French.
Her new play, "Happy Birthday, Baby," deals with a couple on each of what Soland calls their "marker birthdays," from ages 25 to 45. Greasepaint flows through Soland's blood, too, and led her to found a new Valley venue, the Fellowship Theatre, where the play had its premiere.
Award-winning director Allan Hunt, who also handled "The Name Game," is directing "Happy Birthday, Baby." Hunt says that he enjoys guiding Soland's work because it's so audience friendly. "Lisa has an uncanny ear for dialogue."
The play is a two-character comedy, and though the plot is reminiscent of that popular favorite, "Same Time, Next Year," Hunt says the focus is different.
"It's not a new premise," he says, "but this time they're married."
* "Happy Birthday, Baby," Fellowship Theatre, 6161 Whitsett Ave., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Oct. 26. $10 matinees, $12 evenings. (818) 973-2215.