He's married, she wants to know whether he'll ever leave his wife, and they're half-naked in the back of a car. You've never met either of them, but you're watching these two thrash out their private life from inches away -- the front seat.
But the adulterous lovers are actors, and in nine minutes, they're going to have this argument all over again for a different set of drivers. Their story, "Not Working Lately," is part of Moving Arts' "The Car Plays," a round robin of vehicular entertainment now parked in the back lot of the Center for Inquiry-West, whose resident Steve Allen Theater programs some of the more innovative shows in town.
Here's the drill: You and a fellow audience member choose one of three series of short plays and are led to the corresponding row of cars. A carhop will ask you to enter a specific car. (Each nine-minute play takes place in a different vehicle.) When your official escort shuts the doors, the play has begun. When it's over, the carhops will return to ask you to move to the next vehicle to witness -- and perhaps participate in -- a different story.
There is something irresistible about a scene performed for only you and one other person. The interior of a car, as intimate a space for Angelenos as our beds, becomes the intersection of private and public, the familiar and the uncertain. Theater always takes us on a journey, but think of "The Car Plays" as an innovative form of hitchhiking.
As for the plays, the rules of the highway hold true here as well: The cars (and their occupants) vary radically in quality and appeal. There are some disappointments; classic automotive set-ups (say, the end of a bad date) fail to yield much that's compelling.
The best pieces use the car -- and automotive features we take for granted -- as another character. In "Reveille" by E.M. Lewis, a father (Richard Ruyle) resists giving his recently enlisted son (Casey Nelson) a ride to an Army base. At a tense moment, the older man abruptly opens the driver's-side door while the key is still in the ignition, and the familiar ringing alarm that follows punctuates his emotional state. In "Two Fellas, One Fella," written and directed by Moving Arts artistic producer Paul Nicolai Stein, the anatomy of different cars is the play's subject -- and the source of its clever twist.
So although too many of the plays merit citations from the cliche cops, the evening itself offers enough novelty to make an hour of eavesdropping in well-vacuumed vehicles the kind of surprising theatrical experience that L.A. needs a lot more of. Even more intriguing is the fact that each set of actors performs its play 15 times in three hours -- so try to be a memorable audience member.
"The Car Plays" combine the pleasures of site-specific theater and voyeurism -- one of the better arguments for carpooling since the high-occupancy lane.
`The Car Plays'
Where: Steve Allen Theater, Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Aug. 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7
Ends: Oct. 7
Contact: (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com
Running time: 1 hour