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Loves L.A., Hates L.A., Loves It, Hates It . . .

Playwright Jose Rivera can't seem to make up his mind about the city he lives in. Hey, that might make a play.

May 18, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Jose Rivera likes to examine Los Angeles from the high vantage points near the Griffith Observatory, not far from his Los Feliz home. "From here you can see a pattern," he said, during a conversation at the snack bar near the observatory. "The city seems more manageable."

On this particular morning, however, no pattern was readily apparent. Smog obscured most of the vista beyond Griffith Park itself.

How apt. The grassy observatory knoll is one of the settings for Rivera's new play, which illustrates the difficulty of getting a handle on sprawling and diverse L.A. Opening May 27 at the Mark Taper Forum, "The Street of the Sun" is "about competing views of Los Angeles," the playwright said.

It is also "a kind of Ulysses journey through Los Angeles and 24 hours of one man's life." And it's the most L.A.-focused play yet from the writer, whose credits include recent La Jolla Playhouse and New York productions of the Obie-winning "Marisol" and "Cloud Tectonics" and an earlier broadcast by PBS of his "The House of Ramon Iglesia."

"The Street of the Sun" was inspired by Anna Deavere Smith's staged documentary "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which also premiered at the Taper. Stylistically, it's closer to Smith's work than Rivera's previous plays, many of which have been awash in surrealism and fantasy.

"I liked the kinetic energy between Anna and the audience," Rivera said. "It was like Greek theater--a poet telling a story to people who were participants in it."

Unlike Smith, Rivera conducted no formal interviews to gather material. But he kept his ears open, and "almost all of ["Street of the Sun"] was overheard," Rivera said. "I transcribed this play more than created it." There are exceptions to this rule, such as the scenes in which Apollo shows up. Generally, though, "it's a matter of having the city speak."

Rivera's last two plays, "Cloud Tectonics" (La Jolla, 1995) and his new children's play "Maricela de la Luz Lights the World," are both set in L.A., but Rivera says they're "not about the city like this one is." Neither of the two has been produced in L.A., so this will be the first staging of any of his L.A. plays in the city where they're set.

Rivera said he would be surprised if "The Street of the Sun" has a life outside Los Angeles. "There's a great antipathy toward L.A. out there." The Goodman Theatre in Chicago commissioned the play, but decided against producing it on the grounds that it might not interest Chicago audiences, Rivera said. Likewise, people at Seattle Children's Theatre, which commissioned and workshopped "Maricela," told Rivera of their hatred for L.A.

Rivera, 42, can sympathize with such feelings, for he sometimes shares them: "I go from one feeling to another on a daily basis--first I want to create art about this place, then I want to get on a plane."

His entree into L.A. was extraordinary. Hired out of New York by Norman Lear's Embassy Television in 1983, the Puerto Rico-born and New York-reared playwright and his wife, Heather Dundas, flew into L.A. "on an incredibly polluted day and took an endless bus ride on the jammed 405 to Van Nuys"--where, at the Flyaway terminal, he was met by none other than Tom Hanks.

At the time, Rivera says, Hanks was "the only person I knew in L.A." They had been apprentice actors together in 1977 at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio, where "Tom got his Equity card and I decided I wasn't an actor." Rivera and Dundas lived for three weeks in Hanks' guest house in Studio City until they found an apartment of their own. In "The Street of the Sun," the would-be screenwriter Jorge and his wife Therese also live in Studio City, with an actor friend as an unseen benefactor. Although the play is set in the present, Jorge's "mind-set is definitely what my mind-set was in 1983," Rivera said.

Rivera hated L.A. during the time of his Embassy contract. His most famous credit was "a.k.a. Pablo," a sitcom about a Chicano family, even though Rivera said he "didn't know the Cinco de Mayo from a burrito" when he arrived.

He fled to New York in late 1985, but returned briefly in 1988 for a production of his "The Promise" at Los Angeles Theatre Center. However, in 1990, Rivera and Dundas--now "flat broke"--decided they didn't want to raise their new daughter in a New York apartment. They returned to L.A., lured by the prospect of screenwriting salaries.

This time they settled in Silver Lake, a neighborhood that Rivera had not even glimpsed in his first L.A. sojourn. Though Malathion-spraying helicopters greeted them, Silver Lake "completely changed my view of L.A.," he said. "It was so much funkier, more diverse, younger."

Hollywood came through. Rivera co-created and co-produced the NBC children's fantasy series "Eerie, Indiana." It lasted only 19 episodes, but they're rerun weekly on the Fox network. The series enabled Rivera and Dundas to buy their Los Feliz house. Two weeks after they moved in, the riots hit L.A.

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