“The Car Plays” drives theater to the heart of personal experience

It’s not like me to gush. I might like something. I might even really, really enjoy it, but since having seen The Car Plays last Saturday, I cannot stop talking about it to everyone I know with the enthusiasm of an infatuated 13-year-old girl talking about Justin Bieber.

Sign for "The Car Plays" at La Jolla Playhouse. (Photo by M Dryja.)

The Car Plays is a grouping of 10-minute plays. Each play takes place in a different car. The audience members go two-by-two into the backseat or front seat of a real vehicle to watch the plays. And each program consists of five different ones so, by the end of an hour, they have seen five different plays.

What makes The Car Plays so different is that everything takes place in a car and during any given play there are only two audience members. This creates an intimacy and familiarity which makes the experience immediate and very personal. For example, in “Dad”, the play about a father who pulled over on the side of the road to discipline his fighting children, the actor was in the front seat speaking to us in the backseat, as if we were his kids. It was a story about someone we never met and, yet, it could not have been more familiar. I don’t know about you, but I can remember a number of times as a kid being threatened with “Don’t make me pull over this car!” As the play went on, layers were peeled back to reveal the deeper story about the dad. It was a touching, sometimes funny, story that almost anyone can relate to.

Checking in at The Car Plays we got our rules of the road and met two producers in the process, Kim Glann and Steve Lozier.

That’s the way all the plays were, too. They started out with a surface-level glimpse at the characters and, with every minute that went by, another layer was removed to reveal something even more familiar and, at times, more funny, or more painful than I could have imagined when stepping into the seat of that car.

Magically, it would seem, when the ten minutes were up and I got out of one car to go to another, the feeling I was left with was that I had spent time with friends who had told me something important, personal, and perhaps secret, about their lives. There was a leftover feeling of trust that their stories and secrets were somehow real and that their lives would go on. It’s like when you finish reading a good book and you miss the characters. Even though, intellectually I knew the characters were fictitious, my heart wanted to stick around and find out how things shaped up afterwards. I rooted for Batman and Robin in “The Duo” to win the contest they had entered, and cried in “Before We Go Home” with Rich and Sue because their loss is a loss I know all too well myself. Adam and Mike had me in stitches and squirming like a worm in hot ashes in “The Audience”. Their car, in particular, was one that I got out of wishing it could have been real so we could go have dinner together and talk about The Car Plays.

We lined up two-by-two in three lines behind the road sign with our play series name on it.

Finally, another part of what made The Car Plays so personal was that, when the plays were over and we got out of our final car, we not only clapped for the actors, producers, and director, but we had the opportunity to actually interact with them. I wanted to go hug David Youse and Ron Morehouse for their parts in “The Audience”. I did go up to them, but at the last minute I got nervous and just told them how much they had made me laugh. I was thankful to get to tell Peter James Smith from “The Duo” how much I enjoyed seeing him play Batman. And it was a thrill to talk with Michael Shutt from “Before We Go Home” and learn about his experience of having to cry five times an hour. (You would never know, either, that he has to do that over and over again. His performance was as fresh when I saw it as if his character was experiencing that loss for the first time.)

Our Car Plays tour guide, Cashae Monya, gave us an unforgettable and entertaining introduction as she led us to the cars.

I hope you do get to experience The Car Plays. I hope I get to see The Car Plays again, too, quite frankly. It was playing as part of the Without Walls program at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, and it is still open this coming weekend. Once it is done there, though, I’m not sure where Moving Arts, the production company who brought it to La Jolla, will drive it to next. I’m rooting for Phoenix.

The playbill and our tickets for Car Plays. (That little car is an old Avon aftershave bottle in the shape of a VW Beetle. It was my grandfather's and still has aftershave in it.)

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