It was one of those eerie experiences that makes ESP seem utterly plausible.
Veteran actor Harris Yulin was on his way recently to meet fellow members of the L.A. Classics radio drama group when he decided, unequivocally, to fulfill a long-held desire: Almost since adolescence, he had wanted to do George Bernard Shaw's probing "Don Juan in Hell."
Arriving at his destination, Yulin, who starred in the CBS series "WIOU" last year, immediately approached Ed Asner, who consented to appear with him. Seconds later, Rene Auberjonois walked up with a question: Did Yulin want to do "Don Juan"?
"I was thunderstruck," Yulin said recently. "I said, 'Not only do I want to do it, but I was just talking to Ed Asner about it, even as we speak.' "
It turned out that Auberjonois had been asked to stage a reading of the work to benefit a fledgling Malibu theater troupe last fall. With Yulin producing and directing, the three men and Bonnie Bedelia did that benefit show. They'll give another performance tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre with recent Tony nominee Judith Ivey replacing the busy Bedelia.
"Don Juan in Hell" originated as a large chunk of Act III in Shaw's "Man and Superman," which most often is staged minus the "Don Juan" sequence. Set in hell, the Devil (Auberjonois) hosts Don Juan (Yulin), his former lover, Dona Ana (Ivey), and her father, the Commander (Asner), for the evening.
The evening's conversation among the four participants explores "love, war, sex, romance, parents and children, religion, art, morality and theology--and just about every other subject that might be of contemporary interest," Yulin said by phone from his home.
"The characters, especially the Devil and Don Juan, are in direct opposition about how to live and what life is about; what the struggle is about, what consciousness and evolution is about.
"Hell turns out a very different place from what it might be in the popular imagination. It's not a place of fire and brimstone, but a place of luxury and leisure and pleasure. This is what upsets Don Juan so dreadfully about it."
Yulin, 54, was introduced to "Don Juan" through a recording made by the First Drama Quartet, a small band of actors including Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Tyrone Power and Agnes Moorehead that staged concert-style readings about 40 years ago. He named his group the Second Drama Quartet, which is also booked to do "Don Juan" in Lancaster and Palos Verdes.
Shaw's prose, at times expounded in lengthy monologues, was part of what first attracted Yulin to "Don Juan" and what brought a strong response in Malibu, he said. There's been a "huge resurgence" of interest in theatrical readings during the past decade, he added.
The writing "has rhythm and form, and people are hungering for theater of the spoken word," he said. "I think the wonder and the joy of it is in the dialogue and the words--which may provoke the imagination in a way the visual (action) may not."
The profound and complex content of the play--in which many "good people" end up in hell--and its characters drew him to it too, he said.
"It's Shavian dialectic at its best. Shaw doesn't make heroes and villains--people who are black and white--yet everyone has a point of view and a powerful point of view."
Shaw's work is considered by some to be dry, because it constitutes "a theater of ideas," said Yulin, who has acted in or directed about five Shaw plays. (Multiple Emmy winner Asner is probably best-known for his role as Lou Grant in two television series; Auberjonois for his role in the popular TV series "Benson." Ivey won a Tony nomination this week for her lead in the Broadway play "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.")
"I think it's true (that Shaw's realm is) a theater of ideas. But ideas are born of feelings," he said. For instance, in scientific discoveries, there's always an "intuitive jump from this place to that place and the jump is finally articulated as an idea or theory or equation, but the thing that provokes that (idea or theory) is a feeling, an intuition.
"So all of the ideas (in) Shaw's (plays) are ideas born of very passionate feelings. . . . I think that's evident in the play. There's nothing dry, nothing casual--everything is at stake, because it's about how to live, how to be who you are, and how to break through to yourself and your God and to your truth, and how civilization could be constructed for the benefit of people.
"That's the main thing I find about Shaw's plays. But that's no surprise; a good play can't live as a play of ideas unless its ideas are born of feelings."
A reading of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" will be presented tonight at 8 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $16 and $18. (714) 854-4646.
MOVIES "Final Analysis" (1992)
"Narrow Margin" (1990)
"Candy Mountain" (1988)
TELEVISION "WIOU," starred as the anchorman (CBS, 1990-91)
"The Visit," with Jane Alexander (January through April, 1992)
"A Lesson From Aloes" (1981-82)
"Watch on the Rhine" (1980)