This is Southern California's car culture taken to the extreme: Twenty-five cars, tightly packed into an empty lot at the foot of the Whittier Boulevard bridge in downtown Los Angeles, watching not movies, but live theater. Drama. Complete with lighting, stage makeup and white wine at the concession stand.
This is "Drive-In Drama," a gimmicky idea that debuted for a short run in 1987 and was resurrected Saturday night for a performance of "Mayhem at Mayfield Mall," a farcical spoof complete with a toxic monster reminiscent of the B-movie villains favored by drive-in fans.
It costs more then the drive-in movies of yore ($40 for a four-door car, $30 for a two-door), but producers believe the Drive-In Drama Lot on South Imperial Street is the only venue where drama enthusiasts can enjoy professional theater from the comfort of their automobiles.
That gimmick drew an eclectic crowd Saturday night. Out-of-work actors mingled with drive-in movie cultists and ballpark-style tailgaters with beer and potato salad. Autophiles used the chance to show off their well-tended '54 Chevies and gleaming convertibles.
"Los Angeles is insane," said Stephanie Brundle with a roll of her eyes. An Atlanta native visiting her brother this weekend, Brundle asked, "Do you people ever get out of your cars?"
Once the lights had dimmed and audience members had donned their specially designed "2-D" glasses, the honking began in earnest. At drive-in drama, it seems, the horn replaces restrained applause. The audience honks instead of laughing, honks instead of booing and honks instead of hissing. Sometimes, people just honk to hear themselves honk.
It makes for an interactive, if loud, experience.
The play is deliberately ridiculous. The heroine, a spunky investigative reporter named Melissa Mann, is out to expose the corrupt owner of the new Mayfield Mall, a gleaming symbol of consumerism built on top of a toxic waste dump. Somehow, the toxins have given rise to "Tommy, the Toxic-Waste Monster." The play is mostly about the havoc Tommy wreaks on the mall's shoppers, and their quest to defeat the toxic menace.
In short, "It's the perfect plot for a drive-in," said David Willman, who should know. Willman, 31, is a self-confessed drive-in movie fanatic.
"I'm considering writing a book about drive-ins," Willman said. "But only because I don't have the capital to make a movie about them."
Willman gave high marks to the theater's subject choice, and applauded the selection of movie candies available at the concession stand. Still, he was a little miffed at some not-so-authentic details.
"First, there's no individual speakers for the car. I mean, that's basic," Willman said. "Second, they're selling wine here. You just don't have wine at drive-ins."
Those inconsistencies aside, the warm night, collegial atmosphere and the novelty of the experience were enough to leave most in the crowd happy.
"I go to drive-in banks, drive-in food. When I go to Mexico, I buy my car insurance from a drive-in salesman. I even lost my virginity in a car," said Hugh Rawling, drawing a displeased look from his girlfriend. "But seeing a play in a car is a first for me."
After intermission, many perched atop their cars for a better view of the onstage action.
"I try to get to as many of the smaller community plays as I can," said Vanessa Carus in hushed tones as she watched the play from atop the hood of her convertible Mustang. "You'd never see Warner Bros. do something like this. It's the small-time people that are willing to take a chance and get creative."
The creativity, explained "Mayhem" playwright Joel Bloom, was jump-started by a few margaritas with friends more than 11 years ago. The idea started as a joke, Bloom said, but eventually materialized into this campy two-act play tailored for drive-in drama.
"This version is just like the last one, only some of the dialogue's been updated. We took out the Lyndon LaRouche references, and so on," Bloom said.
So, instead of poking fun at erstwhile presidential candidate LaRouche, this time around the "Mayhem" characters banter back and forth about the Drudge Report, Monica Lewinsky and "The X-Files."
Each crack earned a honk in response.
"Mayhem at Mayfield Mall" is shown Friday and Saturday nights at 9 p.m. The Drive-In Drama Lot is located at 615 S. Imperial St. in Los Angeles. Call (213) 613-0986 for reservations.