Follow That Cab : Melfi's on-stage taxi evokes a sense of nostalgia for audience. Few other writers have clung so closely and devotedly to their subject as has this playwright to the soul of New York.

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As anyone who's ever walked in a crowd down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue knows, the law of the jungle is: Keep moving or get out of the way. The theory goes that this is why New Yorkese is such a rapid-fire flurry of verbiage, as if the current idea had better rush through, or the next one will crush it.

Try, for example, to keep up with the verbal rush from playwright Leonard Melfi, who recently visited Los Angeles to check in on The Dark Night Players' production of a collection of his one-acts at the Gypsy Playhouse in Burbank.

In the booth of a Burbank brew-and-chow place, the 57-year-old Melfi, with a mop of curly hair that threatens to spill over his eyes at any moment, spins off one account after another: How he turned from acting to playwriting just as the off-off Broadway movement was heating up in the early 1960s; or how he and buddy Sam Shepard once contested each other in a game of who could write a play in four hours (Melfi won); or how he crashed hard with alcoholism just a few years ago.

Like one of the cabs in his 1978 "Taxi Tales" (three of the five--"Taffy's Taxi," "Toddy's Taxi" and "The Teaser's Taxi"--are at the Gypsy), Melfi verbally zips around from one spot to another without warning.

"The cabs in these plays, they're bigger-than-life cabs, you know, they're not just cars with meters, they're big, New York cabs, a Checker cab." On opening night, he says, "some people in the audience were telling me that they're from New York, and they saw the taxi on stage, and it made them feel like they were back home, that they were missing the city, and that's nice to hear."

Perhaps their sense of New York nostalgia was being triggered by the plays as well, for few writers have clung so closely and devotedly to their subject as Melfi has to New York. Since he started writing original acting scenes while studying in Uta Hagen's famed acting classes and turning out chamber pieces for Ellen Stewart's tiny, revered theater, La Mama--the incubation room for off-off Broadway scribes such as Melfi and Shepard--Melfi has remained the voice of lonely hearts in Gotham.

But, as in his 1967 "Halloween," the companion piece with "Taxi Tales" at the Gypsy, they're lonely hearts likely to encounter one another only on a stage. In the real world, would a 30-year-old garbage collector ever sweep a 50-year-old married cleaning woman off her feet in 45 minutes? No more likely than that a dead woman would be revivified by a kiss, as happens in Melfi's "Times Square."

"I just love having characters meet for the first time," Melfi says, as a way of explaining the umbrella title "Encounters," under which "Halloween" and his best-known play, "Birdbath," are included.

"My people are always having encounters. 'Taxi Tales' is part of a follow-up volume, 'Later Encounters.' There's that moment when they meet. What will happen? Who will say what? They're strangers, so they start spilling everything out. They feel more comfortable with someone they don't know. It's one's longtime intimates which one guards against."

Melfi has had to guard himself against the slings and arrows of a career which burned bright early on, but which hasn't always fulfilled its promise.

"Although an able craftsman of the theater," notes critic Walter Bode, "Melfi has so far failed to pursue his well-worn themes and situations into new territory." The Mark Taper Forum staged his "Disfigurations" and "Niagara Falls" in the late 1960s, but he hasn't been back since.

"This is no B.S.," Melfi says. "I'm happier right now staying at this Olive Manor Motel down the street--it's right out of 'Double Indemnity,' like I can imagine Barbara Stanwyck next door--typing away on my new play ("Bellevue of the Westside"), and talking with an audience about stuff I wrote years ago which everyone still seems to enjoy. That's what it's all about."

Where and When

What: "Taxi Tales" and "Halloween."

Where: Gypsy Playhouse, 3321 W. Olive Ave., Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 1.

Price: $10.

Call: (818) 842-5829 or (213) 661-0731.

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