L.A. Cafe Plays

L.A. Cafe Plays
Every 3rd Sunday of every month
7:30pm and 9:00pm

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Price: 7:30 PM – $15.00 /  9:00 PM – $10.00
Info: (310) 397-3244

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Café Plays gives directors, actors and writers 10 1/2 hours to create.
By Cindy Chang, Special to The Times

At 9:30 a.m., the characters of Noah, the unsuspecting idealist, and Rachel, the hard-nosed abductor, had not yet been born.

Playwright Christopher Franciosa stared ahead blankly, his coffee mug swirling steam into the sunlit cafe, as precious seconds ticked away.

In less than four hours, he needed to finish a one-act play that would be performed in front of a sold-out audience that night. His only inspiration was a five-word theme — “Til Death Do Us Part” — and head shots of the two actors who would speak the lines he hadn’t yet written.

“I may wait around for 3 1/2 hours and then write for the last half-hour,” he said. “Something will happen, I hope.”

In the adrenalin-addled world of L.A. Café Plays, playwrights write hyper-fast, actors and directors rehearse hyper-fast, and even the programs are printed hyper-fast. A preparation schedule that is normally spread out over weeks or months is compressed into one frenetic day.

The 65-seat Ruskin Group Theatre is typically sold out for the two evening performances, as audiences revel in the 10 1/2 -hour creation cycle of five one-act plays, bound by a common theme and locale — all must take place in a cafe — but otherwise as diverse as the minds from which they spring.

With only five hours to prepare, the actors might drop a few lines here and there. But on this stage, spontaneity is valued over polish.

“There’s an ingenuity that arises. Everyone’s creativity is on high alert and no one is waiting for anyone else to solve the problem,” said Markus Flanagan, one of the monthly show’s founding producers.

Similar performances have taken place in New York — one used the subway as its leitmotif — but L.A. Café Plays is the only long-running show of its kind in the Los Angeles area. Produced by the Santa Monica-based Ruskin Group Theatre Company, Café Plays debuted in fall 2003 and was staged intermittently until Fred Deni, the owner of Back on Broadway café and an actor himself, insisted that it become a monthly endeavor, offering his restaurant as a writing space and providing free food for the participants.

As Back on Broadway patrons enjoyed a lazy Sunday brunch that February morning, Franciosa and four other writers tried to coax their creative juices to flow.

At the table next to Franciosa, another Café Plays newbie, Chris Mulkey, confessed to having lost his way in the frenzy of creating a plot and two well-defined characters in so short a time.

“I think I’m going insane. I’ve lost control of the characters. They’re just talking to each other,” Mulkey groaned two hours before deadline.

At 1 p.m. producer Mikey Myers came to collect the goods. Franciosa was still frantically revising, finally relinquishing “J-Date,” which ends with Rachel forcing Noah into a getaway vehicle, at 1:05.

Across town at the Ruskin Group Theatre, a jittery group of five directors and 10 actors waited for the plays to arrive. Each director chose an envelope containing a script, and rehearsals began.

The show occasionally has a celebrity quotient, as February’s did with the Café Plays directorial debut of actor Dylan McDermott. Participants are paid only with free sandwiches, but the chance to test their creative mettle and end the day on a live-performance adrenalin high lures many of them back.

Writers, directors and actors alike speak of the freedom from self-criticism — under such intense deadline pressure, there is no time to worry about measuring up to anyone’s standards.

“It’s one of the most alive experiences I’ve ever felt on stage. It forced me to put my attention on my partner and pay attention to what he was saying. I didn’t know my lines that well, so it really forced me to live in the moment and work off of him,” said Lea Marlene, a first-time Café Play actress who played a woman facing the end of the world with her fiancé in Mulkey’s “Last Days.”

By the last harried run-throughs that Sunday evening, some actors were still forgetting their lines.

But with the lights up and the spectators in their seats, no one asked for cues or noticeably flubbed a delivery. The jokes were greeted with uproarious laughter.

Despite its painful genesis and down-to-the-wire finish, “J-Date” was as well-received by the audience as the other four plays, at least judging by the laughter-and-applause meter.

“The audience was screaming with laughter. My actors ad-libbed a little bit, and they missed one important little thing that I was a little disappointed with, but it was fine for such a quick thing,” said Franciosa, who is the son of the late actor Anthony Franciosa.

On Sunday, another crew of five writers, five directors and 10 actors will take the seat-of-the-pants challenge. February’s theme was Valentine’s Day-inspired, and this month’s theme — “Tax Time” — is also seasonally relevant, if slightly more prosaic.