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Madison Avenue by Day and Broadway by Night : Founders of an advertising agency try their hand at producing a play at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood

In the tradition of Mickey and Judy, Michael and Philip decided to put on a show. The difference is that Michael Albright and Philip Labhart are not a song-and-dance team but founders of the 6-month-old Albright/Labhart advertising agency--and producers of Richard Greenberg’s “Eastern Standard” (at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood).

By day, they worry about coming up with inventive campaigns for clients such as Ocean Pacific, Epi, Nexxus and MGM/UA. By night, theater calls, and they’re pulled into the lives of a quartet of New York yuppies: Steven, his gay friend Drew, and their respective lovers, siblings Phoebe and Peter, falling in and out of love and reevaluating their high-powered careers.

High-powered could certainly also apply to the advertising partners, who left their positions (Albright was a creative director at the Shalek Agency, Labhart an executive producer at D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles) to set up their own shop at 6500 Wilshire Blvd.

“We had no choice,” Albright said, laughing. “Our clients were saying, ‘Go into business, go into business.’ In Los Angeles, there aren’t that many good creative agencies. So the market was wide open for a new, bright young shop. And we had a reputation around town for doing some really good creative work, stuff that was off the beaten path. But we thought, ‘There are so many other ways of communicating, touching people--and we want to do them all.’ ”

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Enter “Eastern Standard.”

“What you’re trying to reach in a commercial isn’t much different from what you’re trying to reach in a play,” Albright said. “You’re always trying to reach a target group. A commercial for a hair color product for women is not going to reach a truck driver who may be buying Budweiser. When a producer options a musical, he knows its appeal is to a certain demographic. It’s the same with this play--except that it touches on universal themes.

“Philip and I want to move you emotionally--in some direction,” he said of the ad work. “People go to movies because they want to experience something. We want people to watch our commercials and have an experience. Whether we’re selling tennis shoes or aluminum siding, you won’t forget us. And doing the play helps us get in touch with our customers. So we’re using our own money--almost as an exercise in reaching you.”

Labhart, 32, who has a theater degree from Wesleyan University in Ft. Worth, began as an actor, then segued into a typing job at Benton & Bowles, where he found his niche on the creative end. Returning to theater now (as the play’s executive producer) has filled a gap in his life, he said.

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“As you learn to express yourself in radio and print advertising, having a background in theater, you miss being able to express yourself that way. I mean, how artsy-fartsy can you get about prunes?”

Still, art usually comes with a price. “Theater is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Albright, 33. “You’re lucky if you break even. But by putting this play on, we’ve done a lot more than put a play on.” An opening night benefit “raised money for AIDS; we’ve gotten business inquiries to our agency, gained the respect of a lot of creative people--even business people who thought it was a very prudent business choice.”

Albright, a Hollywood native who spent 10 years working as a magician before hooking up with the advertising department at Revlon, admits that many new clients aren’t so easily won over.

“When they say, ‘How are you going to handle my account? What are you going to do for me?,’ we say, ‘Look at the way we run our business.’ Our commercials don’t come from a selling place; they come from a human place. They don’t try to sell you; they try to win you over. We are very entrepreneurial. So whether this play gets bad or good notices, whether people agree with it or not, isn’t as important as the fact that we went out there--in a different forum--and exercised our creativity.”

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“Eastern Standard”

At the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 650-8507.

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 and 7:30 p.m., until July 8. Tickets: $20 to $25.


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