A breakneck lineup of 12 short sketches by playwright, composer and Saved by the Bell creator Sam Bobrick, L.A. Deli centers around a day in the life of its titular eatery, an industry hangout where six actors take turns portraying a retinue of Hollywood types, presided over by Kathleen (Gail Matthius), one sardonically been-there-done-that waitress. Structured as overhead conversations in which agents lie, friends manipulate, studio heads exploit and even family members blithely betray, the play, running through April 27 at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre, takes a lighthearted approach to a notoriously nasty business.
It's a story Bobrick knows well. The playwright, who won an Edgar Award a couple years ago for his comedic murder-mystery play The Psychic, also led a decades-long career in the biz, with credits on such classics as Bewitched and Get Smart. No doubt he has amassed a thick file of you-can't-make-this-up anecdotes, which L.A. Deli purports to draw upon. As to which parts he cribbed from real life, he isn't telling.
"I've always felt good comedy is exaggerated truth," Bobrick says. "For me, it's not only easier and more fun to write, but the people I'm writing about have no idea it's them. Most of my TV career was spent writing for established shows. Every time I'd go to a network to pitch a new idea, it would be turned into something else by the so-called 'comedy development people.' But with three kids and a mortgage, I soon accepted it as the norm."
Still, "I really enjoyed my show business career and liked - even loved - most of the people I worked with, no matter how crazy or flawed they were," he says.
The crazy fun came to an end about 20 years ago. In the wake of Saturday morning teen fare Saved by the Bell, which went off the air in 1993, Bobrick retired from Hollywood for good. "I had always hoped that I'd be able to quit TV and concentrate on plays before I turned 60," he says. "It seems so did the networks. So it worked out well for both of us."
Bobrick is far from the only Hollywood veteran with a second act in L.A.'s small-house theater scene. Garry Marshall founded the popular Falcon Theatre in Burbank in 1997, for instance, which has since staged a host of productions starring television staples from Morgan Fairchild to Jack Klugman. High-profile producer Joseph Stern formed the acclaimed company that would become West Hollywood's Matrix way back in 1975. Meanwhile, longtime TV director Sheldon Epps currently serves as artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Writing for various media has its own challenges, Bobrick says.
"During the time I wrote for TV, there were more restrictions, censorship and a large lack of adventure," he says. "With the advent of cable, the situation has almost reversed itself to where it's the theater that has become less brave. Not all of it, but a large part of it. Big family musicals seem to be the trend on Broadway, and they seem to have a follow-the-leader mentality that most of the American movies now have. But like the movies and TV, every now and then something absolutely sensational breaks through."
To date, the 81-year-old writer has penned 35 plays. Bobrick's first, which he co-wrote with then-writing partner Ron Clark, is the often revived Norman Is That You?, which dealt sympathetically with homosexuality in 1970. "The play was about a dry cleaner from Ohio who comes to New York and discovers his son is gay. It was the first Broadway comedy that did not treat homosexuality as a problem or illness, and it seemed to piss the critics off," Bobrick says. "Our being TV writers also seemed to bring them great pain, and we closed in two weeks." A year later, according to Bobrick, the play opened in Paris and had a five-year run. "We had three plays on Broadway after that, but the critics were not forgiving and killed each one.
"On the plus side, all those critics are now dead, and the plays are still being performed. Ha ha."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m. Through April 27. (323) 960-7738, www.plays411.com/ladeli.
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: