On a sweltering weekday afternoon at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, the famous Jewish cemetery nestled into the Valley side of the Hollywood Hills, 31-year-old Jordan Cole, the youngest of the park‘s four funeral directors, swings his Ford pickup into the parking lot near the front gate. A burly figure with cropped, receding hair and large, deep-set eyes, he’s decked out in his professional costume — an immaculately pressed dark suit and tie. (He‘s just come off directing two funerals that afternoon — one in a chapel, the other graveside — a slow day, he says.) Here, he strikes a more formal image than his alter ego, ”Zombie Joe,“ a founder of ZJU Theater Group, now on Lankershim Boulevard, and in its 10th year. The name Zombie Joe, however, has nothing to do with his day job — it comes from a troubled earlier period in his life, now ancient history, he says.

I first met Cole on the street outside his theater a few days earlier as I was arriving to see Combo Platter, an evening of short plays by his friend Mark Harvey Levine that Cole had produced, and some of which he’d directed. And though his dress was more casual then, he was just as sweet and unassuming. Which was surprising to me, as I‘d heard that Dostoyevsky and Artaud were the primary influences behind his gritty aesthetic. But in a flush of pre-show intuition, Cole signaled that Combo Platter’s sketchy, sitcom style was a departure from the ZJU‘s darker norm. ”Just wait until Othello opens in mid-July,“ he said. ”That’s more like what we do.“

He speaks in soft, gentle cadences that impart kindness and innocence. Standing in the Mount Sinai parking lot, he‘s quite nervous. ”I’ve never been interviewed before.“ Cole offers me a bottle of chilled water before we climb into his slightly dusty truck.

We ascend a narrow road into the cemetery proper — rolling hills of lawn, punctuated with pine and olive trees. ”I‘ve buried over a thousand people,“ Cole says with what might almost be called pride. ”We’re running out of space,“ he adds. ”We‘re almost sold out“ — an expression shared by both the funeral and theater professions. Cole pulls out a couple of audiotapes. ”Do you like the Grateful Dead?“ he asks. Is he joking or oblivious to the irony? ”I’ve got 400 bootleg copies.“ Nope, he‘s quite serious. He fiddles with the tapes between his fingers, though neither of them makes it into the cassette player.

After learning that the casket-display room is locked, we walk past an employee lounge in the mortuary to a bulletin board where, every morning, Cole learns his schedule for the day — just after helping wash the company’s transport vehicles at 7:30 a.m. He receives further written instructions from staff counselors who‘ve been making arrangements with the families of the deceased. After preparing the chapel and gravesite, and possibly helping carry a heavy casket, Cole meets the mourners, usually a mere hour before the funeral itself, serving as stage manager and psychologist. ”Sometimes the family invites me to be one of them for the day, sometimes they want me out of the way,“ he says. ”I just pick it up from their body language, and respect their wishes. After all, it’s probably the worst time of their lives.“

His job‘s requisite blend of quick thinking, sensitivity and attention to detail has lent itself to his theater productions, he says. A decade ago, the stage work was amateurish and gratuitously sexual and violent.

”We used to smash TVs onstage, and ram our heads through steel-studded dry-walls . . . We’d brandish guns at the audience and tell them we were holding them hostage. We thought that was funny, and didn‘t understand why they never came back . . . I was miserable then. In August 1997, I locked myself in the theater and pushed away all my friends and family. I hit bottom.“

Now he runs his theater with strict discipline. Actors have to be on time to rehearsals; his company doesn’t pay dues, but each performer is responsible for bringing 10 paying customers. The theater is spotless, no food, drink or drugs allowed on the premises.

His day job, he says, has helped redeem him. ”You learn so much about yourself and the cycle of life, listening to people and what their needs are . . . Listening to the funeral speeches, about the kindness and generosity and accomplishments of the deceased, it makes you reflect on your own life. Is this what I want people to say about me?“

Combo Platter closes this weekend at ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Call (818) 202-4120.

LA Weekly