TheatrExpresso offers food and food for thought at downtown's Pacific Center.
By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times
April 6, 2005
Insurance agents, lawyers and real estate execs working at downtown's Pacific Center last Thursday were probably puzzled to hear "Dueling Banjos" wafting through the marble-tiled corridors. The "Deliverance" theme song emanated from a new theater in the historic Beaux-Arts office building that, over the decades, has counted Laurel and Hardy and Richard Nixon among its tenants.
Pacific Center's latest lessee hopes to be every bit as entertaining. Standing on a low-rise stage inside the new ground-floor venue, Edgar Teetwell III, an anxious hick bachelor, prepares to court his curvaceous girlfriend, Natalie Jo Butts, by confessing to a roomful of recently fed audience members: "I'm giddier than a tree rat at a goober pea farm." Pratfalls, spit-takes and hee-haws ensue as Jonathan Kehoe and costars Stacie Wengryn and Craig Braun emote on behalf of "Suthern Comfort," a very loose adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Marriage Proposal." "Comfort" represents the debut offering from TheatrExpresso, which plans to serve lunch and a live show every Thursday.
The noon performance was peppered with friends of George Shohet, the dapper semi-retired lawyer who founded TheatrExpresso and authored the bawdy 22-minute spoof. But strangers showed up too. "I came down here from Santa Monica for a meeting," said Realtor Naveen Vennan, noshing on a chicken wrap he'd collected from the buffet table in the corner of the room. "Some of my co-workers told me I had to come down and see it. I think cramming a show and a lunch into one hour is a pretty remarkable hurdle to get over." Esther, a power-suited financial manager who declined to give her last name, walked a couple of blocks from her downtown workplace to see the show. "This is a reason to get out [of the office] and get some culture into our day-to-day lives," she said. "To do it in the evenings or on the weekends takes a little more work."
After the first performance, while caterers cleared the tables for a second seating at 1:15 p.m., Shohet plopped down on the center-stage sofa and explained the rationale behind TheatrExpresso. "In our pitch to sponsors, we talk about TheatrExpresso being an introduction service," he said. "We'd like first-timers from downtown and the immediate area who aren't really all that acquainted with theater to experience live performance. What we're trying to do, on a budget, is provide this wonderful opportunity for the community to experience something artistic during the day."
Not that TheatrExpresso is an entirely altruistic proposition. For Shohet, the launch of this lunchtime theater company dovetails neatly with his own writerly ambitions. "Suthern Comfort's" six-week run will be followed by his adaptation of an Arthur Kraft romantic comedy, "The Matchmaker," and a Shohet-penned black comedy about an accountant who holds his ex-girlfriend hostage.
"I try to be very ego-less about this," he said, "but much of this is inspired by the fact that I've been a frustrated writer for a long time."
Before becoming a auteur/impresario, Shohet ran a lucrative law practice specializing in class-action suits. He segued into show business about five years ago. "I started a little entertainment company with these two producers, and for a while I was out there pitching reality TV shows. I quickly found out that it really wasn't my cup of tea."
Shohet made some headway on the creative front with a couple of television pilots, but networks ultimately passed and a family illness further dissipated his second-career momentum.
Then last spring, while vacationing with friends in Ireland, Shohet happened across the concept he's hoping will take root here. "Dublin is a great town for writers and theater, and while I was there, I heard about these pubs that put on excerpts from plays during lunchtime. I thought that was a heck of an idea. I mulled it over and realized, if you took the sitcom format and made it a live theatrical performance, you could appeal to Los Angeles audiences who are used to something that's fast and complete."
In August, Shohet formed TheatrExpresso as a nonprofit group. Since then he's put in 60-hour weeks organizing his production team, cajoling sponsorships and assembling an advisory council that includes actress Marcia Gay Harden.
In search of a venue, the loquacious lawyer met with Hal Bastian of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. "Hal gave us a four-hour walking tour," Shohet said. "We traipsed up Bunker Hill, down to Figueroa, over to the Fashion District, all over town, and when we landed here I fell in love with this building."
Bob Buckles, asset manager for Holualoa Cos., which owns Pacific Center, succumbed to Shohet's enthusiasm. Mingling after the show with other early-afternoon theater-goers, Buckles recalled, "When George came looking for space, I thought, 'Right, this guy will never get it off the ground.' I kidded him that it's like an old Mickey Rooney movie: 'We'll use my dad's barn, the girls will make the costumes, let's put on a play!' So I agreed to loan him the space, thinking it would never happen. But sure enough, he did it."
Where: The Pacific Center, 523 W. 6th St., downtown Los Angeles
When: Noon and 1:15 p.m. Thursdays
Price: $10 in advance; $15 at the door; optional $8 for lunch