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Much to Do in a Few Short Radio Days

Theater

L.A. Theatre Works lures name actors for projects that take a week from rehearsal to taping.

March 31, 2002|SUSAN KING

Whenever Stacy Keach feels he needs to flex his acting muscles, he knows he can always get a good workout doing a radio play for L.A. Theatre Works' "The Play's the Thing" series. Keach, a founder of the radio theater company who describes himself as one of its "long-tooth" members, has strutted his thespian stuff in several of the group's productions during the past 14 years, including "The Crucible" and "The Country Girl."

"You get to sort of dip your foot in the water of great theatrical art," the actor says. "You get to wade in the pool. Most working actors in Los Angeles have other lives. They have a series or are doing a movie and they don't have the time to devote [to a traditional theatrical production]."

"It gives us a chance to do stuff that you don't get to do in front of the camera," says fellow founding member Hector Elizondo, who recently performed in the company's production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

It's also doable, says Elizondo, who performed on radio as a child actor. "It doesn't take 150 people. You don't have to have makeup on. You don't have to get up at 4 in the morning like a ditch digger. I prefer working in front of a microphone. What happened is that we turned out to be the Mercury Theater of the Air," he said, referring to Orson Welles' legendary radio company of the 1930s. "We resuscitated and revitalized a wonderful art form--radio drama."

The recordings are done over a five-performance engagement in front of a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center, and until the program was dropped last summer, they could be heard on "KCRW Playhouse." Santa Monica-based KCRW-FM's loss has been the gain of Pasadena public radio station KPCC-FM (89.3). The station began airing the company's productions on March 2. Whereas the company was just one of the components of "KCRW Playhouse," KPCC has given it a weekly showcase, at 8 p.m. Saturdays.

That L.A. Theatre Works has become an award-winning company, which has recorded more than 300 works since 1988, is something of a fortunate accident. "It started out to be Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works," Elizondo says. "Our mission was to create a theater of actors, funded by actors for actors. These would be folks who came from the theater who don't get a chance to do theater much anymore because of their filming schedules and TV. That was a utopian idea. Fortunately, most of the people in it [including Richard Dreyfuss, John Lithgow and Marsha Mason], in accounting terms, were liquid. So we were able to fund the project."

But they couldn't find one, Elizondo says. "It was difficult to get people to decide on what project to do. At some critical point, we had to raise more money and I think it was Richard Dreyfuss who said, 'Why don't we record something for radio and we can raise some money?'"

Susan Albert Loewenberg, the company's producing director, contacted general manager Ruth Seymour at KCRW (89.9) to see if they would be interested in broadcasting the production. "That is the way it started," Loewenberg says. "We decided on doing a novel, Sinclair Lewis' 'Babbitt.' I insisted that we use all 34 original members of this group, which included Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Asner, Marsha Mason, Helen Hunt and Julie Harris--an incredible group of people. It put us on the map."

Since "Babbitt," the company's roster has swelled to 1,500 members. Over the years, actors from Nathan Lane to Amy Irving, Alan Alda, Alfred Molina, Anthony LaPaglia and Charlayne Woodard have participated. (The recordings are available for purchase through the company's Web site at www.latw.org.)

Rehearsals for each "The Play's the Thing" begin just two days before the first performance. They were relaxed and playful for "Middle of the Night," which opened the company's 14th season on March 20. The rarely seen Paddy Chayefsky comedy from the late '50s--recommended to Loewenberg by an actor--chronicles a May-December romance between a 53-year-old widower and his 24-year-old receptionist.

In a small conference room at the Skirball, the cast--including Elliott Gould and Sally Kellerman--stood in front of paper plates being used as points of reference for microphones. Stuart K. Robinson, who has directed four L.A. Theatre Works projects, listened intently as the actors read from their scripts.

The group cracked up when Gould accidentally said the line "pools of blood" instead of "pools of water." When actress Christina Haag asked Robinson if her character and Gould's had consummated their relationship in a certain scene, Gould piped in: "I'd like to see what the reporter from The Times thinks."

"Middle of the Night" was Gould's first appearance with L.A. Theatre Works. "I knew Paddy Chayefsky and I have had an instinct about this piece of material for quite a long time," said Gould, who grew up listening to the radio. "Most people wouldn't think of me for this, and I know in my heart and soul that I am right for it."

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