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Cold Night in a Small Theater

Marc Porter Zasada is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. His radio commentary, "The Urban Man," is featured on KCRW.

Everyone wants to express himself, no matter how great the odds against him. On this Saturday night, the odds include a cold wind down Hollywood Boulevard, where the evening traffic has just kicked into gear. Scanty dresses and leather jackets scurry. In my sometime guise of theater critic, I’m headed not for the Kodak, nor the Pantages, nor for any marquee built with a thousand small lightbulbs. No, turning hurriedly down a poorly lighted alley of a street, I search for one of the miniature “black-box” theaters that are strewn across L.A. like speakeasies from another age.

Even though I have never been inside this one, I picture it lovingly: cramped--no bigger than my living room--and chill and damp as a root cellar; walls, floor, insulation, rafters and drainpipes painted black; lighting cables hanging twisted and threatening overhead.

When I enter one of these venues, I feel the presence of a fierce talent hidden backstage: a thin, brilliant fellow lurking in the green room with his personal take on society and a loose cloth jacket. A producer-director-actor, broke but unrelenting. A dramaturge who still smokes, and who, like a determined dice player, goes head-on against the odds. I always visualize the moment when, at age 22, he broke his father’s heart by leaving a perfectly good Shakespearean swordplay workshop at Northwestern to take a red-eye to L.A.

As a critic, I admire him, even envy him. But as a father, I must admit that the image of such men and women inspires fear.

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For across town at this very moment, in my actual living room where it’s cheerfully warm and brightly lighted, a group of teenagers is practicing a passionate student play. I know that among them is my 16-year-old son, probably just now donning his dashing gray felt cap and entering stage left to speak deftly about the state of society. His step is frank and fierce and determined, and even though he does not smoke, I know he’s unrelenting. His director no doubt urges him on: “More, more. You can give me more than that!”

During these rehearsals, far from Hollywood Boulevard, true self-expression often hovers close, if just out of reach. Maybe if the kids were a little more fierce, a little more unrelenting....

Meanwhile, out in the cold alley, where a handmade sign announces the theater, I pass through a forbidding iron door in a blank medieval wall. In the courtyard, one other patron, clearly a critic and clutching a similar manila envelope of press materials, sprawls cynical and sport-jacketed on a narrow iron chair.

I make a slight joke: “Nobody here but us reviewers, eh?”

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“Looks that way,” he says in the weary, uninterested style of veteran journalists.

We wait for the doors to open, ignoring one another as actors and actresses flutter up the stairs to some rehearsal hall, intent on more important purposes than the second night of another world premiere. In the half-light, I can see that they are openly beautiful, and I wonder about that moment when each decided to really go for it, when each first decided to capitalize on that Renee Zellweger nose or that James Dean chin. I recently discovered a James Dean chin on my son, and he already has expressed a strong interest in continuing his acting career. Even tonight, perhaps, he imagines a scholarship at Northwestern--where he pictures himself playing Henry V in that swordplay workshop--and I cannot help but engage in a bit of epic foreshadowing.

In a vision, I see him a few years from now, hoisting a flashing rapier under the streetlights and shouting, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” I note his handsome profile as he leads a fierce troupe through a break in the medieval walls of some small venue off some small alleyway in Hollywood--maybe even this one.

Now it’s 10 minutes after 8. Having held the doors as long as it dares, management relents and invites in a total audience of two middle-aged critics.

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Inside, we find the theater precisely as I had imagined it, but nearly as cold as the outdoors. We sit uncomfortably in two of the 36 metal folding chairs, and I button up my meager critic’s sport jacket. As a dramatic prelude, a young man sits stiffly onstage, his back half-turned: Here at last is the fierce dramaturge I had anticipated, tonight’s writer-producer-director-leading man. He is sharp of cheekbone and handsome of neck, and I find that he possesses a much more finely chiseled chin than does my son. I know he has put up his own probably scarce money to mount his play, and I wonder if he knows that there are only two of us in the gloom, staring him down. Surely, no matter what fine and energetic director inspired him years ago, this man has long since learned about the odds.

A jet of water roars through one of the drainpipes from the rehearsal hall upstairs, the music kicks in and I sit forward in my seat. I find myself, as always, filled with an unexplained and giddy optimism. Naively, I again link my own eager love of theater to unknown gamblers. I mean, who knows? Perhaps tonight all that fierce determination will pay off. Perhaps the encouragement of this man’s coaches and well-wishers will be justified. Perhaps he will repay even the fears and anticipation of his father.

The lights flare. Actresses enter to languidly open and close false windows. Actors enter to angrily adjust and readjust their ties. The leading man speaks philosophy. And for a time, it all does seem remarkable and important. Indeed, by Act 2 we have romance and rising conflict. Glittering looks blaze beneath colored gels. Truths are summoned in high language.

But ultimately, no. Somehow, it all fizzles in the last half an hour. Somehow, we achieve no real self-expression. In the end, I slump in my chair. The magic has hovered close, but it remains just out of reach. We two critics applaud, trying to sound like an audience, but we know the unrelenting dramaturge has lost his wager. And I ask myself how I might prevent my determined child from trying to express himself in the metropolis, five or 10 years down the road.

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Outside, as we hurry into the night, the other critic turns to me and draws a phrase from a ready box of laconic wit: “Well, better luck next time.”


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