Los Angeles' broad mosaic of Hollywood splash, sunbaked eccentricity, casual violence and urban ache avoids simple answers at almost every freeway turn. Finding a clear perspective seems daunting.
But that's what John Ferzacca is attempting with "Nightfalls in L.A.," his 35-character play about a metropolis that's as much a state of mind as it is this state's largest city. "Nightfalls" premieres tonight in Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Theatre and will continue through May 15.
A longtime OCC theater arts instructor and author of several plays (including "The Failure to Zig-Zag," staged at OCC in late 1991), Ferzacca said he started "Nightfalls" a few years ago as a series of one-acts focusing on the city's vivid history and diversity. As he wrote more and more of these playlets, they formed into a whole.
"I had all these stories in mind and this need to describe a really remarkable city. I had something about the Hillside Strangler, something about the Rodney King case, something about the earthquakes. Everything, I hope, taps into the timelessness of L.A.
"I also wanted to show why people come here. Some want to be movie stars; some come for the opportunities. The ethnic mix was important, too. Of course, putting it all together was the challenge."
The play reflects on the past three decades but occurs in one long night. During these dark hours, a woman is abducted by a man who could be the Hillside Strangler. We're also introduced to Marilyn Monroe's daughter and an LAPD cop who must re-examine his feelings toward the King beating when he's seized by two black men. Then there's the woman who appears on game shows for a living. And that's just for starters.
The 19 actors--mostly college students, many with little experience--portray a rainbow coalition of characters--African Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Hawaiians, Middle Easterners--who roam freely through Ferzacca's drama.
"I don't recall that we've ever done a play at OCC featuring so much diversity," the playwright said. "My intent is to show what we were and have become. How we've changed and how we've stayed the same. I think it holds a mirror to the city's people."
It also holds a mirror to OCC's theater arts department which, Ferzacca says, needs to stage more ethnically rich shows.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to generate diversity right here . . . get more actors (of different races) into productions. We've always had the Newport Beach blond types, which is fine, but not enough others. There are plenty of roles in plenty of plays that can take (actors) of any race.
"For this show, we didn't have any trouble filling the roles. I was amazed how many people came out for auditions. It just shows you that they're out there, willing to get involved."
Ferzacca has written for Hollywood and said the play gave him an opportunity to reflect on that often frustrating corner of the city. The King case allowed him to ponder violence and racism, and his treatment of the Hillside Strangler became what he calls a rumination on "the psychology of the victim."
As for Monroe's daughter, Ferzacca said he was just having some fun. "I read a National Enquirer story about some woman in Australia who said she was Marilyn's daughter. I just wanted to look at that. . . . Of course, there's a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in the show, too."
He realizes that, with all the intertwining tales and characters, "Nightfalls" may be difficult for audiences, a worry that has kept him rewriting all the way through recent rehearsals.
A further source of anxiety: This is the first time he is directing one of his own plays. "It's not easy," he said. "I feel a bit schizophrenic at times. But I'm sure I'll survive."
Yet another challenge came with his decision to sprinkle much of the dialogue with foreign languages. He wanted realism but was often confused when it came time to introduce the right native phrase. "There's Spanish, Farsi, Vietnamese, Korean and French, and I have a problem because I don't speak any of those languages. I've had to rely on translators, and the actors themselves."
A few in his cast, he said, had language problems of their own because they weren't familiar with English slang.
"We were having a run-through, and these two actors were reading their lines very fast because they thought that ('run through') was literally what I meant," Ferzacca said. "They just didn't know what I was talking about."
* "Nightfalls in L.A." by John Ferzacca premieres tonight at 8 at Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Continues Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through May 15. $6 to $9. (714) 432-5880.