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With their pasts, this is a blast

April 11, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

There may not be a more up-to-the-minute play in town than "Window of Opportunity," a comedy-with-plot-twists that dissects the putrid moral innards of a corporate Croesus trying to manipulate his way out of an Enron-like scandal, while indulging in the call girls-a-la-carte lifestyle of a Yale-degreed, White House-connected, Teflon-coated scoundrel.

But behind the scenes, the show at Hollywood's funky little Met Theatre is notable for its assemblage of notables from the high-counterculture days of the '60s and early '70s -- and as an illustration of how friendships and creative alliances are forged on a grass-roots theater scene.

On the penultimate day of rehearsals last week, one could have seen the play's co-producer, John Densmore, drummer of the Doors, sitting on a bench in the lobby recalling how Francis Ford Coppola secured the rights to the band's entire catalog for "Apocalypse Now," but used just one song, "The End." The filmmaker made the most of it in the picture's unforgettable napalm-ballet opening and during Martin Sheen's climactic ritual murder of Marlon Brando.

Onstage, sitting near a faux fireplace topped by an authentic moose head trophy -- decor in the corrupt chief executive's rustic retreat, where playwright Samuel Warren Joseph sets nearly all the action -- is director Billy Hayes. He's recalling a scene-from-life that wasn't in "Midnight Express," the harrowing 1978 film about surviving in and escaping from a Turkish prison where he landed in 1970 for trying to smuggle hashish.

Hayes, a wiry man with a large supply of intensely honed nervous energy, tells of a caper in which he stole a big wad of cash from an imprisoned drug dealer who kept his business going from behind bars by paying off the guards. While the guards searched futilely for what was hidden in plain view inside a candle, Hayes and two accomplices whistled the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" in "a show of false bravado."

Enter from the wings actor Phil Proctor, asking, "Anybody got a pair of pliers?" Surprisingly, it's a straight line -- the co-founder of the seminal '60s satiric comedy group, the Firesign Theatre, needs to pry open a stuck bottle cap on the nasal spray he's using to combat the communal cold that has overtaken most of the six cast members. "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," is Firesign's signature album from 1970 -- and Proctor says he'll take a brief detour to Washington, D.C., today to see it officially registered by the Library of Congress as a recording of special significance. Later, backstage, the affable, white-haired Proctor kills time with his fellow actors before rehearsal by fondly recalling the wide-open celebrity social scene in '60s L.A.

"When the Manson murders happened, it all ended. Everyone got real low-profile."

The premiere production of "Window of Opportunity" also is an example of how creative drive can carry a person forward after fame has waned -- or when it never really arrived in the first place.

After graduating from San Francisco State, playwright Joseph quickly debuted as a screenwriter with "Off Your Rocker," a forgotten early '80s movie about a revolt in an old folks' home, starring Milton Berle and Red Buttons. And that was it, except for some animated episodes of "Batman" and Disney's "Duck Tales." Joseph, 53, now makes his living teaching English composition at community colleges. A few years ago he set aside screenwriting to concentrate on plays, figuring the stories he likes to tell have a better chance of gaining a life on stage than on screen.

After the Doors, Densmore didn't stop making music -- the 61-year-old drummer is getting ready to release the debut album of his new band, Tribaljazz -- but he also delved into the small theater scene as a composer, performer and producer, and he is on the board of the Actors' Gang. The Met is familiar turf: Densmore did a one-man show there in the early '90s, drumming and telling stories from his 1991 autobiography, "Riders on the Storm."

Densmore and Joseph met during the early 1980s at a downtown L.A. artists' and writers' soiree and became close friends. When Densmore married Leslie Neale, an actress and documentary filmmaker, in 1990, Joseph was his best man.

About three years ago, Joseph finished "Window of Opportunity" -- inspired by a conversation with an old high school buddy from Morristown, N.J., who moved among CEOs as a consultant to big corporations. Joseph was talking about a play he'd written called "Moral Imperative," in which highly placed academics try to justify an assassination committed for the good of their university.

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