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Critical Bargains

Ah, the life of a critic--seeing the best performances in town, sitting in prime seats and never spending your own money. (We're forgetting for a moment the uninspired shows, the never-ending drives and the garrulous audiences.) So what happens when a critic is, like most of us, on a budget? Can people with the highest of standards find a good time when cost is an issue? Here, four critics each take $100 and spend it (or less) on a full weekend of entertainment.


Let's assume you are talking to me. You are talking to someone who has valet-parked his car twice in nearly three years of living and parking in Los Angeles.

It's a matter of cash and of automotive inferiority, I suppose. I don't need some guy in a red vest, especially if he's on the lookout for an agent and a better grade of hair mousse, sneering at my 1990 Toyota Corolla with its "WORLD'S LARGEST SIX-PACK" bumper sticker, souvenir of a La Crosse, Wis., brewery tour.

So: The prospect of spending $100 or less on a weekend's worth of theater-related activity brings out the cheapo in me.

Anyone in L.A. can see actual plays in full production. Everyone should. You never know when you'll see something good. But there are other ways of investigating theater on a modest budget.

If you haven't attended a staged reading of a new play, correct that flaw immediately. It's fun, or can be. Just the essentials. A bare stage. Actors, often seated at a table, with spiral-bound scripts before them. Stage directions read aloud by someone. ("Scene 1, dentist's office. Horace enters, bleeding from the mouth....")

A couple of Fridays ago, I caught a couple of newbies in the A.S.K. New Play Weekend at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood, up by the Bowl. The experience was a tonic, a nice change from the usual, and good theater by any standard.

L.A. playwright Kelly Stuart's "Mayhem," a lively seriocomic slice of recent local history set around the time of the Democratic National Convention, related also to the Taliban, of all topics. How's that for timely? A fascinating new German play, "Parasites" by Marius von Mayenburg, took the staged-reading format to a higher level. Directed by Matthew Wilder, this study in parasitic family relationships took off like a shot. Excellent cast. Fully inhabited universe. And free.

The A.S.K. series has come and gone, but a similarly promising offering continues through Sunday. It's the Mark Taper Forum's 14th annual New Work Festival, billed as a series of "open public rehearsals," held at the nifty Evidence Room space. These too are free, featuring new work by Lynn Manning ("Middle Passage"), Sandra Tsing Loh ("A Year in Van Nuys") and a richly funny new play by Luis Alfaro ("Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner").

Vaudeville is dead; long live vaudeville. Recently I caught "The Scary Palace Show" at the downtown Palace Theatre. A kind of postmodern, whatever-works variety thingie, its bill included a strange lineup of acts, from an hourlong video infomercial peddling a product called the "drum buddy"--it only seemed like a year--to the Janet Pants Dans Theatre to my favorite: a Fellini-esque stilt-walker who also juggled. (At intermission, she could be seen hanging out in the Palace lobby, smoking.)

The Palace show was plagued by terrible sound problems and huge slabs of dead air between acts, insufficiently filled by an emcee more amusing to himself than to those who paid $10 to get in. Yet I was glad I went. The weirdo-pomo-neo-trasho vaudeville format holds tremendous promise, and booker Dawn Garcia says another variety show should find its way to the Palace stage in December or January.

Perhaps this does not sound as if it's your "scene," as the young folks say. The great thing about Samuel French bookstore in Hollywood is simple: It's all scenes to all types of theater- and filmgoers.

Why read a play, when plays are meant to be played? A fine question. But as with staged readings, if you haven't read a play lately, or ever, you should.

No, it's not the same as seeing one fully produced. It's a different experience altogether. It's a chance to bring your own imagination to bear on the theatrical act.

With some scripts--Caryl Churchill's "Blue Heart," for example, in which the tricksy, repeated-pattern language makes James Joyce read like John Grisham--you ask yourself: How would this be staged? But if the language is strong enough, as it is with Churchill, the pleasures of reading and rereading it compensate.

At Samuel French Theater and Film Bookstore, a big, high-ceilinged place in Hollywood down the block from the Coach & Horses tavern, a person can happily spend many tens of dollars on the latest published scripts out of London, out of New York, out of other places, even. And here, you can overhear some classically L.A. conversations between actors. Hear about that audition? I don't know that play; any good?

At any given moment, in any given corner of Samuel French, someone is perusing a script, wondering if its pages contain the Role, the one that will unleash their full talents. The rest of us have reasons to explore its corners as well.

* Mark Taper Forum's New Work Festival, through Sunday, Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. Free. (213) 972-7389.

* The Palace Theatre, 630 Broadway, downtown. Admission prices vary. Palace hotline, (213) 688-6166.

* Samuel French Theater and Film Bookstore, 7623 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. (323) 876-0570.

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