THEATER : Love and Toxic Times : Pair faces off in 'Akela,' by Ron McLarty, a play about old flames, betrayal and a tragedy.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to The Times

The cocoa is deadly in Ron McLarty's "Akela," opening tonight--in its world premiere--as the Road Theatre's inaugural production at the new Lankershim Arts Center.

"Mary is a teacher who goes on a camping trip with a group of Cub Scouts," says director David Gianopolous. "No one realizes there's been a spillage of waste into the river. That night, she has a few beers; the kids have cocoa--and some of them die."

The play, which is set in Colorado, begins after the tragedy has taken place, with Mary on trial for complicity in the situation. She finds herself embroiled in a legal and emotional faceoff with the local toxic-waste disposal company--and its owner, her former high school sweetheart Isles.

"After high school, they went in different directions," Gianopolous explains. "He went into the Marines, she went into the peace movement and later moved to New York. As I see it, this is a relationship play about two people who care for each other. She's not sure [he participated in the toxic dumping], and he needs her to know he didn't do it. It's about love and betrayal, old friendships. You get to see how they were when they were younger together. You go back in time to get to know them."

The two-character piece features Road Theatre members Michael Dempsey and Taylor Gilbert ( Akela , meaning "leader," is the name given to Gilbert's character by the campers.) The play was brought to the company by Gianopolous, who became friends with playwright McLarty in 1990, when they co-starred in Steven Bochco's much-maligned musical TV experiment, "Cop Rock."


"Ron's written a lot of plays," notes Gianopolous, who will appear in the upcoming films "Under Siege II" and "Critic's Choice." "I asked him to send me five or six, and I really liked this one."

McLarty has indeed written a lot of plays--31 to be exact. Nine have been produced, at such venues as the Library Theatre of the Lincoln Center, the Triangle Theatre, the Lion Company and the Intar. His play "The Dropper" received the Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works Award in 1992. "It's my avocation," insists the actor, who was a regular on TV's "Spenser: For Hire" and will begin work in the fall on the ABC series "Champs" for the Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg DreamWorks company.

McLarty, who commutes from his Montclair, N.J., home to acting and voice-over jobs in New York, came to the idea of "Akela" several years ago, after he and his wife spent time in Colorado with their three children. "They had a problem of trucks unloading hazardous material [into the river]. Several of them were caught," McLarty recalls. "So I was interested in that--plus the relationships between people make good theater." As for the writing itself, "I do it as an actor would: I write some, then I get together with some [actor] friends and have them read it, then I write some more."



What: "Akela."

Location: Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Ends July 23.

Price: $15; discounts for students, seniors and unions. June 25 is Pay What You Can Night for San Fernando Valley residents.

Call: (818) 761-8838.

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