The Car Plays: Super Fun White Problems

The Car Plays
Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Jan. 14, 2012

There's a reason audiences rush to the front of a stage during any performance. It makes a show much more real–to see sweat dripping off foreheads, the minutiae of expressions, theĀ  brand of sneakers they're wearing. Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Car Plays–held over the weekend (and again this coming weekend) as part of the Off Center Festival–took it to the next level.
The Car Plays were set in 15 cars parked at the Center's plaza. The plays–about 10 to 15 minutes long each–took place inside the cars, which only two people could watch at a time. To watch a full set of five plays, audiences had to move from car to car.

As an audience member, it was an unusual experience from the moment I gave my ticket. Even before we got seats inside our cars, we had to get briefed on the logistics of the show. The evening's program was printed on a “citation,” formatted like much like a traffic citation with a notice to appear, dates and times, and descriptions of incidents (the plays themselves).

After the briefing, we were escorted into the cars, but ushers had to open and close the car doors for us. That signaled the beginning of the performances. Being in the same car as the actors made for an intensely intimate performance setting. Seeing sweat drip down foreheads was nothing compared to smelling their perfume and body odor.

And it was a trip to go through various snapshots of life through the plays. Our section, Road, had five plays that (I'd heard) were more R-rated than the others, which meant we witnessed a threesome in the making, a sex scene in the front seat and some terrorists trying to blow themselves up. Gimmicky? Sure. Novel and clever? Sure. Effective and mind-blowing? Definitely.

“Easy Listening,” written by Craig Wright, was a one-man-play commissioned by South Coast Repertory for the festival. In it, actor Jeffrey Johnson sat in a car alone, trying to choose a soundtrack by which to kill himself. Being in the car with him gave me an anxious, fly-in-the-wall feeling. Even though we were watching his back for the most part (we were, after all, in the back seat), I could feel the despair and sadness reverberating throughout his being. And that was a feeling I got in each car/stage.

That the actors could make audiences feel their emotions in a physically palpable manner–that's definitely what makes the Car Plays a huge success. After all, it's not usual for actors to act without the extra barrier of a stage. Having an audience up in your face is a dimension that's not always available in theater, and the actors faced the challenge admirably.

On the other hand, the subject matter, while heavy, wasn't that complex. In fact, if I had one complaint, it was that most of the topics that Car Plays delved into were white problems. You know–things you worry about, but don't really matter much when weighed against the problems of the rest of the world. Yes, an older couple was having a baby and they were worried it was going to ruin their lives. Yes, a woman was hung up on her cokehead boyfriend. Yes, divorce is sad, but look! Your friends can cheer you up by having sex with you. It did make me wonder what car plays would be like in different settings, with different actors–in a war zone, in an impoverished nation, in an urban landscape.

The Car Plays will be held at the Arts Plaza at Segerstrom Arts Center on Jan. 20 and 21 at 5:30, 7 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.

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