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To Be Young, Urban and Neurotic

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The most prominent roles of Lauren Cohn’s film career are in the can now--her bank teller opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s sweet-talking swindler in “Catch Me if You Can,” and her woman in mourning consoled by grief counselor George Clooney in the sci-fi feature “Solaris.”

But Cohn can’t say for sure if she will be coming to a theater near you. She could just as easily be headed for the outtakes pile. Whether this brown-eyed bit player gets seen will be up to the respective directors, Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh. As for Cohn, she is left to cope with the lack of autonomy, the uncertainty of it all, as best she can.

This common actor’s lot has turned Cohn and a select group of her similarly situated friends into Neurotic Young Urbanites. They know what it means to feel isolated, marginal and at the mercy of other people’s whims as they try to crack the big world of Hollywood. But during the past 10 years, this theater troupe, made up mainly of old friends who went to acting school together at New York University, has been able to find both community and control by creating little worlds of its own onstage. The current Neurotic Young Urbanites production is “Once Upon a Primetime,” a musical spoof of TV culture playing at the 75-seat Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica.

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At first, their intentions were purely mercenary. To survive in Hollywood’s feed pond, they needed agents. To acquire agents, they needed to be seen. The solution: Rent a theater for a couple of weekends, put on a program of one-act plays and hope to be noticed by somebody.

It worked. Co-founders Patrick Fischler and Paul Wittenburg, now the company’s artistic directors, both landed agents. Despite their initially narrow aims, the two buddies realized they were onto something worth doing for its own sake. Staging those short works by John Guare, Jason Mulligan and James McClure had been fun. Why not do it again?

Now, after a decade of struggling to make their names in film and television, the Neurotic Young Urbanites say the shows they do together--they are on their 13th since that debut in December, 1992--are not a means to an end, but a vital end in themselves.

“Everyone’s doing it for the right reasons now,” the deep-voiced Wittenburg says as he and five other members chat through a sunny midday. They are seated around a green plastic table on the wooden deck behind the Powerhouse. They titter at shared memories, make wisecracks about one another’s foibles, let loose spontaneous unison choruses of laughter, and finish one another’s sentences with impunity. But Wittenburg is making this point in earnest, and nobody interrupts. “This is our acting class, our grad school, our way of staying sharp and focused and keeping ourselves sane.”

“You have so little control as a struggling actor, so any space you can create where you have control is so necessary,” adds Lauren Bowles. The ponytailed blond baby-sat to make ends meet until last year. Then a part she was born to play came through: the younger sister on “Watching Ellie,” an NBC sitcom starring Bowles’ real-life older sister, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame.

The Neurotic Young Urbanites decided from the start to keep the company small and among friends. Eight of the 10 members attended NYU during the late 1980s and early ‘90s; by 1996 they all had moved to L.A. The others are Derek Webster, a CalArts graduate who so impressed the company at a 1994 audition that they invited him in, and freelance director John Langs, the husband of Bowles’ old friend, actress Klea Scott. He became the Neurotics’ resident director in 1999 when they were essaying their first and, to date, only classic, “Twelfth Night,” and decided they needed help from an experienced Shakespearean.

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Members credit Langs with bringing a useful benevolent-outsider’s perspective to their all-in-the-family ensemble.

“The great thing about us is the shorthand we have with each other, but it’s also the thing that could make us lazy,” says Michelle Azar, a Neurotic since 1993. Langs, she said, has helped keep things fresh and pushed members to try new things.

He also has encouraged the group’s transformation during the past three years into a self-contained factory for original work. Other than “Twelfth Night,” the Neurotics’ first 10 productions were plays by established contemporary writers, including Guare, A.R. Gurney, Christopher Durang, Richard Dresser and David Ives. But since 2000, they have bookended two deliberately silly original musicals, “Up the Week Without a Paddle” and “Once Upon a Primetime,” around a jaundiced drama about Hollywood, “The Myth of More.” Cohn and Bowles have emerged as the group’s writers; others in the ensemble are credited with story ideas.

Show business has been the plays’ common theme. “Up the Week” and “Primetime” handle it with insouciance--”Primetime” is a blithely politically incorrect fable about a mistreated mute girl named Edna Crumb who yearns to find her voice. She climbs through her television screen to begin her quest, embarking on an “Alice in Wonderland”-like journey through 1980s sitcoms and game shows that are ripe for parody. “The Myth of More,” staged last year, was a darkly satiric look at what can come of the obsessive ambition and insecurity rife in Hollywood.

Times reviewers have praised all three. “Up the Week” was called “one of the sweetest theatrical trifles of the season.” “The Myth of More” was rated a “slickly produced package [with] a tarnished gloss worthy of Tinseltown,” and “Once Upon a Primetime” was notable for its “endearing ensemble” in service of “a loopy spoof [that] is deliciously twisted.”

Despite the shifts in form and tone from show to show, Langs sees the troupe developing a coherent body of work.

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“We live in a TV world, and these guys are constantly out auditioning for movies and television. To bring back their experience into the theater and be able to really skewer it and comment on it and revel in it is something that really marks what we do. And it fulfills what the name Neurotic Young Urbanites puts out there--this sense of trying to understand yourself in a crazy place.”

The company prides itself on special staging effects, such as the interweaving of video with live action in “The Myth of More,” and the giant hollowed-out TV set that levitates and descends as needed in “Once Upon a Primetime.” Budgets tend to range from $15,000 to $20,000 a show, says Wittenburg--on the high side for small-theater productions. That’s one reason the nonprofit troupe plans just one show a year, occasionally working in a second.

Ties to other community institutions have helped, members say. An early hangout was Patrick’s Roadhouse, a beachfront restaurant in Santa Monca that Fischler’s family has owned for 29 years; in fact, the place was named after him, the youngest of four kids. Fischler says his sister, who runs the restaurant, comes to Neurotics shows every weekend and brings a sizable contingent.

Azar’s husband, Jonathan Aaron, is an associate rabbi at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills. For years, the synagogue has provided free rehearsal space.

Among the issues that the troupe will have to sort out as they move into their second decade are whether to seek an ongoing residency at a single theater rather than moving from space to space, and whether to try to step up the number of productions--which would mean raising more money.

Other ideas include writing an original play in rhymed couplets, performing the troupe’s two original musicals together in repertory, and taking a break from new work to mount an established play. The decisions are ultimately up to Fischler and Wittenburg.

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“It’s not really a democracy here. It’s a happy dictatorship,” says Fischler, who has had the most active screen career among the Neurotics. He had a monologue as a man with nightmarish visions in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and played the recurring role of Pepe, a streetwise character, on the cop series “Nash Bridges.” Cohn says she once got into an elevator with Fischler while celebrating his birthday in Las Vegas. “A woman went ‘It’s Pepe!’ like he was Elvis or something.”

The company’s name won’t change, Fischler vows, even though Wittenburg gripes wryly that “in three years, it will be kitsch and depressing” if these Neurotic Urbanites still bill themselves as “Young.”

Even more depressing, though, Wittenburg says, would be the anxiety-provoking uncertainties and frequent rejections of the actor’s life, unrelieved by the tonic that comes from being a Neurotic.

“You have the whole rest of your career to be poor and not noticed, so you might as well have fun for the hour and a half you have onstage.”

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“ONCE UPON A PRIMETIME,” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Dates: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends July 27. Price: $20. Phone: (310) 572-6748.

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Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer.

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