BWW Reviews: La Jolla Playhouse parks THE CAR PLAYS in San Diego
Never has the infamous movie line "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" more apt than in THE CAR PLAYS, a unique, site-specific theatrical offering that truly lives up to the idea of riveting, in-your-face theater. At times moving, and at times unnerving and uncomfortable, this intriguingly-conceived entertainment experiment—which really feels right at home here in the mobile culture of Southern California—will continue performances at The La Jolla Playhouse through March 11.
Produced by L.A. troupe Moving Arts from a concept by Paul Stein, THE CAR PLAYS is seriously one of the most thrilling theater experiences you will ever witness—or rather, get stuck in (and in a good way). Yes, the very concept of the play series sounds altogether eyebrow-raising itself: One by one, ushers escort (then trap!) an audience of two within the confined space of a vehicle for a ten-minute mini-play that unfolds before their very eyes. After that play finishes, audience members are then escorted to the next vehicle in their row for a total of five plays per row. There are three rows of five cars, so a pair of audience members will never know which set of plays they'll get when they show up. Cool, right?
My first exposure to THE CAR PLAYS happened before this San Diego run back in January, during its final evening at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County. There, each row of cars were lined up neatly in the Center's open plaza area which truly resembled a bunch of cars dead-stopped at a traffic jam. As you enter each new vehicle, there's a palpable excitement as to what's about to transpire. One minute you're just a quiet observer; the next, the actors are brushing up against you as if you're a ghost that doesn't exist. After that exciting first virgin ride, I knew I had to seek out the rest of this series.
Enter La Jolla Playhouse which, in their version, has parked their play vehicles in a closed-off driveway that circles around a front area of the property's parking lot. It's an interesting configuration: the cars are parked bumper to bumper on the curb of this winding inlet road. But because this make-shift parking lot remains accessible to pedestrians (most of which are UC San Diego students), one won't be surprised to find a few curious on-lookers walking by and perplexed about the audible arguments and even full-on make-out sessions happening within the "stalled" vehicles. It is this very fascinating idea of encouraged voyeurism that gives THE CAR PLAYS its special must-see niche.
No matter which row of cars you end up in, each play varies from comical, to downright scary, to the tragically sad. Only a couple of the plays from the Orange County run have been transplanted to San Diego. In the particular row I was placed in this time (called "Route") during its opening night run, one of those repeats just happened to be our first car of the night.
Simply called "The Audience," the, um, play—without giving away too much because it's just too, too good—will make you either squirm with anxiety or have you nervously laughing through its excruciating run time. Regardless of how you end up reacting to Kiff Scholl's play, it is certainly one of the cars you want to end up inside when you get here. It was definitely a different experience this second time around, only because my co-witness and I knew going in what was about to transpire in the car. (I must give kudos to the two actors that keep this play alive and fresh for each new set of passengers: Ron Morehouse and David Youse).
Even though the whole idea of sitting literally in the thick of the drama next to the actors is THE CAR PLAYS' best trait and initial draw, not all of the plays in the row achieve greatness. While Alex Lewin's "Alright"—one of the world premiere plays commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse specifically for this San Diego engagement—is certainly well-acted by Charles Evans, Jr. and Eddie Yaroch, it doesn't quite elicit much emotional investment. Much better is Richard Martin Hirsch's "Before We Go Home" which finds a married couple (played by Michael Shutt and D.J. Harner) coping with a tragic loss. (By contrast, I felt the row I experienced in Orange County—called "Avenue"—was much more fulfilling and engrossing as a whole set. I even found myself openly weeping in one of the cars which didn't quite happen this time around).
The best of this particular San Diego bunch (aside from "The Audience," of course) include "Disneyland"—conceived by Moving Arts' own Creator and Artistic Director Paul Stein—is both unnerving and funny, as a lone actor (Trey Nichols) scolds the audience (yes, us). You see, he plays the dad in this scenario, and the audience pair plays his unruly kids (whether you like it or not). And, finally, there's Jessica Blaire Smith's "The Duo" which starts off funny right from the start and ends up becoming oddly touching. This quirky tale of two best friends (Peter James Smith and Tony DeCarlo) on their way to San Diego's most geek-tastic annual gathering is a great example of the eavesdropping, fly-on-the-wall feeling that THE CAR PLAYS offers.
But this intimate, in-car eavesdropping also highlights THE CAR PLAYS' only real, albeit minor flaw in its design: because of the close proximity of each car to one another—a configuration that it can't really remedy—audience members can easily get distracted by the screams and sounds overheard in the next vehicle. At one point, I was so distracted by a screaming couple a few cars from the vehicle I was sitting in that I tuned out the in-progress play I was supposed to watch for a few seconds. I wondered, okay, what is that play about? How come I'm not in sitting in that car right now? Actually, maybe this isn't a flaw... the slight distractioin certainly whets your appetite to see the other sets of plays, doesn't it?
Apparently, it's working. Recently, due to understandable popular demand, the series has actually been extended another weekend. I, for one, cannot sing enough praises about this intensely out-there experience that brings new meaning to the term "intimate theater." Even if you're not necessarily a big fan of live, non-musical theater, THE CAR PLAYS—with its uniquely delivered narratives within its forcibly confined space—will make you clamor for more. I guarantee you that once you've finished one car, you can't wait to find out what's in store in the next.
Sure, it will make you anxious as heck, but it will, more than anything, give you some interesting water-cooler moments to share that will pique the curiosity of your friends—enough to motivate them to check it out for themselves. Alas, with so few performances (and so few cars able to accommodate the demand) in its final weekends in San Diego, I suggest you try your best to secure your tickets immediately. To miss this would be like committing a bad traffic violation.
Photos by Vincent Montero.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Due to overwhelming demand, additional dates have been added to the San Diego engagement of THE CAR PLAYS which has been extended through Sunday, March 11 at the La Jolla Playhouse. For tickets or for more information, call 858-550-1010 or visit online at lajollaplayhouse.org. To learn more about Moving Arts, visit www.MovingArts.org.