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Serving Up Bite-Size Plays That Will Please All Palates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The comedy and tragedy are being served up along with the Caesar salad and pasta.

We are at “Hors d’oeuvres--An Afternoon of Bite-Size Theatre” at the Cinegrill, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

The lights dim. Bonita Friedericy stands alone onstage, her hair a tangle of golden curls, her dress a poufy little black velvet number. The play is “Shirley,” wherein playwright Lori Saveriano recalls her girlhood idol, Shirley Temple--"I worshiped the ground she tapped on.”

Lights, curtain. The mood shifts. Three young women in power suits take the stage in “Lawyers,” a bittersweet look at ‘90s women juggling the demands of careers and families. Two are mothers. The third, who’s not about to let children come between her and a partnership, shrugs, “I can’t even manage to feed my fish, Tammy Faye.”

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The strains of “The Minute Waltz” fill the cabaret, signaling time for the first course, the salad.

But don’t confuse this with dinner theater. It is, rather, “theater with food,” explains Saveriano, 43, a produced playwright and onetime actress who devised this menu of one-acts both as a way to introduce fledgling playwrights and to lure patrons who balk at the idea of “sitting in a theater for two hours and watching the same thing.”

Most of the writers have been in the Playwriting / Screenwriter’s Workshop at Palos Verdes Art Center started two years ago by Saveriano. Her 12 “regulars,” most of them women, “take it pretty seriously,” she says, “but they’re not neurotic about it. They have their own lives.”

The first venue for their plays, which are 10-minute one-acts, was an indoor-outdoor cafe in Palos Verdes in the fall of 1994. It was a start, but it was also noisy and, Saveriano says, “We had no lighting, nothing.”

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The story continues--but wait, there’s “The Minute Waltz” again. Curtain time.

The play is “Bird Talk.” Onstage are two women, one portraying the other’s pet bird. The bird changes character as she changes headbands. Yellow headband--a canary that sings like Patsy Cline. Black headband--a vicious, demanding crow, tossing seed from her cage.

The next playlet, “Strangers in My House,” portrays the first day of a man’s retirement and his wife’s forced adjustment. She defines retirement: “Twice as much husband, half as much money.” In no time, he invades her kitchen and is busy arranging the spices alphabetically, demanding, “Molly, do we really need three paprikas?”

The fifth piece, “Broccoli Romance,” is about two office pals--a somewhat dense young man who just got his pink slip and the young woman who just got his job. She’s come to console him but, waking from a pill-induced stupor, he accidentally socks her. In lieu of an ice pack, he produces a package of frozen broccoli for her sore jaw.

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“The Minute Waltz” again. Time for the pasta course.

Then it’s “Harry’s Piece,” wherein actor Murray Rubin does a nice turn as a man of a certain age with a one-way ticket to Florida and a cashier’s check for $150,000. From now on, “It’s sand, sunshine and sex.” But guilt intervenes: Harry had stolen the $150,000 from his brother, with whom he had a lifelong rivalry, and must decide whether to return it.

Before the dessert tray appears, there is “Ashes at the Station,” a tale of three sisters waiting for a bus that’s bringing their errant father’s ashes. They tire of waiting and one suggests they just hold a little service without him--"He was never around, anyway.” So they substitute cigarette ashes.

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Most of the playwrights are in the audience, clapping enthusiastically as the 10 actors take a bow. There’s Nora Boland, 65, of Palos Verdes, who explains that “Bird Talk” is largely autobiographical, a metaphor for the relationship between an Alzheimer’s patient (her late aunt) and the caregiver (herself). The aunt had sometimes insisted there were crows coming through the walls.

There is Iva Sloane, 41, a Harbor College teacher, whose troubled relationship with her father, who died two years ago, inspired “Ashes at the Station.” “Kind of gallows humor,” she says.

There is Hannah Sampson, 82, a late-blooming widow who graduated from college at 63 and is now a columnist for the South Bay Daily Breeze. In “Stranger in My House,” she recalls the trauma of her late husband’s retirement.

There is Jay J. Levy, 27, who also directed four of the plays (but not his own--"I didn’t want to seem indulgent”). At 17, he wrote his first play, which was about “what most first plays are about--bad romances.” “Broccoli Romance” evolved from an unsold screenplay and is a take on “my weird sense of humor” and exaggerated personal experience.

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The Palos Verdes Art Center Theatre Workshop played three restaurants from Hermosa Beach to Santa Monica before landing in October at the Cinegrill. At one venue, Levy recalls, “I had a beach blanket and a shower curtain in my trunk. We stapled them together and we had a dressing room.” At first, the actors--all professionals--were paid out of the writers’ pockets. Today, the door covers salaries.

The writers help decide which of their colleagues’ plays get produced. Saveriano recalls that at first, “We didn’t know what the hell ‘Bird Talk’ was about,” yet the group liked it. Over time, pieces are nurtured and developed.

Says Sloane: “You bring [your play] into class to be read and they say, ‘I love it’ or ‘I hate it. People may say, ‘I don’t buy this.’ ”

The beauty of the bite-size format is that, “If you don’t like one, there’s another coming,” Levy says, adding: “Good for the TV mentality.”

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“It’s elusive, it’s loose. It sort of takes you on a little ride. Theater that’s good to the last bite,” says director Michael Jung with a laugh.

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The plays are bite-size, but Saveriano is thinking big. “I’d like to take it to Las Vegas,” she says--and maybe New York.

The format also intrigues the actors, most of whom came aboard at the start. Friedericy, an L.A. Theater Center alumna, says theater “is about making people understand other people. That’s what I like about these plays--they come from a really honest place.” In 10 minutes, “You get to examine a really powerful moment, a slice of life.”

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Rubin, whose credits include “Roseanne” and “St. Elsewhere,” is intrigued by “the novelty of the thing” and the chance to “stretch into different roles.” He thinks Saveriano has hit on something. “People are getting bored with revivals” and heavy drama is a tough sell, he reasons. With bite-size, if one play isn’t to your taste, it’s over quickly.

Although he’s paid “just enough to pay the gas bill,” he loves working with novice writers with fresh ideas. “From babes come wisdom.”

* “Hors d’oeuvres--An Afternoon of Bite-Size Theatre” returns to the Cinegrill on Feb. 4. Seven plays, including three new pieces, will be presented at 2:30 p.m. Sundays for six weeks.

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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