Theater Hell By Reed Johnson

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``J.P. has been like a saving grace,'' Cox said. ``He knows all the things I don't.''



Byline: Reed Johnson

It must take a perverse sense of humor or a penchant for tempting fate, to open your brand-new playhouse with a work titled ``Theater Hell.''

For David Cox, however, it's also a way of admitting a funny, if painful, truth.
``Theater Hell is absolutely appropriate,'' says the 62-year-old director-producer, chuckling over memories of his six-year quest to establish a home for his 8-year-old American Renegade Theatre Company.

Cox's ordeal officially ended last Friday night when the American Renegade premiered its production of ``Theater Hell,'' its first-ever show at its new 7,500-square-foot residence at 11136 Magnolia Blvd., in the heart of North Hollywood's NoHo Arts District.

Many people credit Cox himself with spurring the creation of NoHo, the city-sponsored confederation of small theaters, art galleries and other businesses that has become one of the largest such cultural enclaves in the country.

``Theater Hell,'' Craig Alpaugh's comedy-farce about the travails of a Midwestern community theater, is being used to christen the smaller of two performance venues that occupy the American Renegade's completely renovated two-story headquarters.

Saturday, the larger, 99-seat theater will host its inaugural show, ``The Sicilian Bachelor,'' a comedy that enjoyed a seven-month run at the Tiffany Theaters in West Hollywood before it was closed by the 1992 riots.

The new building is the company's fourth residence since January, 1994, when the leveled the American Renegade's original home at 11305 Magnolia Blvd. For most of the past five years troupe was forced to rent space in order to produce its shows.

The 50-member company spent two years operating out of a former bank building at 5303 Lankershim until the clamor of MTARed Line subway construction forced it to relocate. It then spent 2-1/2 years producing shows at the Bitter Truth Theatre, - which Cox ran in partnership with two other producers.

In the years between the company's devastation and its rebirth, Cox has kept very busy. When he wasn't directing or producing plays, or acting in them, he was wading through bureaucratic red tape and trying to rustle up city grants and federal loans. The bulk of the current renovation was financed with a $500,000 federal interest-free loan, a $225,000 loan from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, plus another $50,000 CRA loan and a $50,000 CRA grant to repair the building's facade.

During a tour of the building, Cox pointed out various unfinished odds and ends and recounted the last-minute challenges facing his staff.

``We had to put a transformer in at the last minute because the electrician left us with no power,'' he said. ``You can see we're about halfway to where we need to be.''

If the American Renegade is still a work in progress, Cox gives the impression of a man whose heaviest lifting is finally behind him. One big reason for that is J.P. Luckenbach, 24, the energetic new associate artistic director.

An L.A. native whose mother ran a Hollywood-connected catering business, and whose uncle has served as director of photography for ``Friends'' and ``Mad About You'' episodes, Luckenbach met Cox last year while hunting for a theater for an independent production. The two men quickly hit it off, especially when Cox discovered that Luckenbach had experience in producing and in working with lights and computers.

``J.P. has been like a saving grace,'' Cox said. ``He knows all the things I don't.''

In addition to the 99- and 45-seat theaters, the company's new building houses a 21-seat teaching facility and rehearsal space; a small reference library; a VIP lounge; another lounge for actors' use; and a small office occupied by the Valley Theatre League, the umbrella organization of area theater companies and producers.

Each of the two main theaters has separate men's and women's dressing rooms, and there is a lobby and bar area near the main Magnolia Boulevard entrance.

For its debut season, American Renegade is presenting three plays on its mainstage. After ``The Sicilian Bachelor,'' which Cox intends to run for ``as long as we can,'' the theater will present ``The Wait,'' a drama by company member John Goff about the traditions surrounding a Southern shrimp-boating family. ``The Boat,'' a play about a Queens man going through will conclude the season.

The mainstage also will host a Dec. 8 celebrity fund-raising event and Toni Morrell's one-woman show, ``An Or What the Hell Was I Thinking,'' which opens Dec. 1. The mainstage will operate under a standard 99-seat Equity contract, Cox said.

At present there are few events scheduled after ``Theater Hell'' at the smaller venue. But one independent company is renting the space to produce Lorraine Hansberry's ``A Rasiin the Sun'' next year.

The NoHo district should get a major boost this summer when the MTA finally opens its subway station at Lankershim and Chandler.

Says Luckenbach: ``It should be fabulous when we get the subway stop open because there'll be a direct link between (NoHo) and the two theater districts,'' downtown and in Hollywood.

Yet Cox, a Long Island native who has been doing theater since he was 19, said one of NoHo's major challenges is bringing in visitors from the Valley.

``It's hard to make people see visions,'' Cox said of the NoHo district as a whole and the American Renegade in particular. ``We get caught up in our little worlds. But if you keep that picture alive . . .''

He let the thought trail off without bothering to add, ``You won't have to go through theater hell.''