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THEATER : Working Like a Dog : ‘Joe Carbone’s Job,’ opening tonight at NoHo Studios, has at its core author Art Shulman’s imaginings that most people can be identified with a corresponding animal.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

During the heyday of the Group Theatre in the 1930s, noted actor / director Robert Lewis decided that a role he was playing in a Group project was very ratlike. He made his hands into little paws, wore flyaway whiskers and sniffed his scene partner as though she were a piece of cheese.

Art Shulman, whose play “Joe Carbone’s Job” opens tonight at NoHo Studios, has taken that conceit several steps further. Some time ago, he began to imagine that most people can be identified with a corresponding animal.

It started a few years ago when Shulman, who has a market research business--he prefers “motivational investigation"--was working for an ad agency. For a mock newspaper he created for them, he wrote a series of character studies about people and animals.

It eventually turned into a book-length collection that he called “People and Other Animals.” One day someone suggested to Shulman that the studies should be put on the stage.

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Easier said than done, Shulman found out. He began to gather together some actors who were interested in the project.

“I had ended up,” he says, “with this book of sketches, each person in a different occupation, talking about an animal that was relevant for them.”

He developed a story with one of the characters, Joe Carbone. In the story, Carbone was thinking about changing careers, and talked to many other people about their careers to find out what he should do. “That’s what we had,” Shulman explains, “when we first started doing this.”

One of the actors recommended to Shulman was Joedy Colombo, who had begun his career with The Players Ring in West Hollywood. Colombo eventually moved into the business world and now, semi-retired, has returned to his first love, theater. The part that he was first contacted about was already cast, but Shulman still needed a director, and that was Colombo’s particular niche.

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“I’ve read many of the character sketches that are not involved in the play,” Colombo says, “and they’re interesting and funny. That’s what intrigued me about converting it into a play and directing it.”

Together, Shulman and Colombo began to shape the original script into a producible form. In the present version, Joe Carbone, the owner of a chicken slaughterhouse repelled by his livelihood, wants to change his path. He begins working part time for a coffeehouse run by a woman named Angie. (The plot now had a love interest.) Carbone begins talking to the customers about their careers, conversations and monologues based on Shulman’s original sketches.

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Shulman says: “The theme of the play is that lots of people today are changing jobs, or have lost their jobs because of downsizing or the economy. Even if they haven’t lost their jobs, a lot of people just want to change their careers. People question what they should do with themselves. Joe asks, ‘What should I do with myself? What’s the meaning of my life?’ At the end he finds out. Once you find out who you are, it becomes easier to know what to do.”

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Angie is a fervent vegetarian and animal activist, even more upset than Joe about the poor chickens. “To Angie,” Colombo says, “it’s a ‘save-the-chickens’ play. But to Joe, it’s his midlife crisis. He’s an easygoing, fun-loving guy, but this decision has become a burden to him. The play is about how he resolves the dilemma. Angie saves the chickens.”

Colombo is insistent about making the production audience-friendly.

He explains, “I do it from the perspective of the audience. What does an audience need to be entertained while they sit in a theater for two-plus hours? I put myself in their position. I grew up in theater-in-the-round. That taught me a lot about audiences. There’s an audience psychology. You have to prime an audience. You have to give them that first laugh in the first scene to let them know they have permission to laugh. Let them go, and that audience will let loose and respond.”

Shulman says that from 40 to 50 original character sketches he and Colombo have chosen nine for the present script.

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With a laugh, Colombo says: “He’s got a lot more. We could probably do three plays. ‘Angie and Joe II’ and ‘Angie and Joe III.’ Ad infinitum.”

Where and When

What: “Joe Carbone’s Job.”

Location: NoHo Studios, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

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Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 6.

Price: $10 to $12.

Call: (213) 466-1767.


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