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Playing the Naked City
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar section, Sunday, May 31, 1998)
In this metropolis full of stories, director Lisa James digs up some truly compelling ones - including 'The Water Children.'

By Daryl H. Miller

It is crisp and clear at twilight, and from her home high in the Hollywood Hills, Lisa James can see out over West Hollywood, all the way to the Pacific. Millions of stories are playing out down there in the snaking lines of traffic, in the office towefs-still humming with activity and in the houses where lights are just flicking on.

James, a stage director, loves to tell those stories—one sort in particular.

"I like plays that turn on a dime," she says, "that are making you laugh one minute, and the next minute, you're horrified or crying."

James' own plot turned on a dime 11 years ago when, as an actress with the much-admired L.A. Theatre Unit, she happened upon a play that she felt compelled to direct. Critics and audiences applauded that first effort, the screwball crime comedy "Heartstopper," and, 3Vz years later, delivered even louder ovations for "Palladium Is Moving," about the shark-eat-shark world of telemarketing fraud.

Her current project, just the fifth that she has directed, is "The Water Children" at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue. Part issue play, part romance, it focuses on a man and woman—on opposite sides of the abortion debate—who find themselves powerfully attracted to one another. The reviews have been enthusiastic, with James singled out for particular praise.

"I was a director living in an actress' body," James, 46, says of her turnaround. "The second that I sat down in that seat on the other side of the footlights, I knew that was what I did. I just knew. I could see it in my head, I could hear it and I could communicate it."

Her actor husband Gregg Henry—a sweet-natured guy who keeps getting cast as a bad guy in such films as "Body Double" and the upcoming Mel Gibson feature "Payback"—was blown away by the change. "You think you know everything about someone, and then, suddenly, she's astounding me every day with her ability and knowledge about directing."

Henry, who has acted in all his wife's plays and is alternating with Don McManus as the male lead in "Water Children," says she pushes actors "to the edge of imagination, of boldness, of making that big, big stroke—so that you're really working at your maximum capabilities."

"I am manipulative and controlling," she says dryly, "and that's the heart of directing, as far as I'm concerned."

In the same wry manner, she describes "The Water Children"—written by Wendy MacLeod, whose "The House of Yes" was recently adapted into a film starring Parker Posey—as "a feel-good abortion piece."

The story centers on Megan, an actress who believes in legal access to abortions and who had an abortion at 16. Stuck in a dry stretch between jobs, she agrees to an interview with Randall, the head of an anti-abortion group. He's considering her for a television commercial, in which she would portray a woman who regrets having an abortion. Sparks fly as they debate their beliefs—and find that they are falling in love.

"I focused on the comedy and the love story," James says, "so that the issue would sort of fall through the cracks—so you would absorb it but not be pummeled by it."

When the script indicates a dramatic crescendo, however, James doesn't soft-pedal it.

Megan drops by unannounced one evening at Randall's apartment, where she finds him engaged in spin control after an incident at one of his group's anti-abortion rallies. Horrified at the news, Megan subtly sets out to determine the limits of his beliefs.

James pushes the action into the narrow aisle between the Matrix's seats—to make it seem as though Megan and Randall are talking in his apartment building's hallway, struggling to keep their voices low. Viewers in some of the seats find themselves just inches from the action.

"We're peeking in on something that we shouldn't be privy to," James explains. "That intimacy was very, very powerful for me."

James states, flat-out, that she was at first wary of "The Water Children."

"I was very frightened, frankly," because the play "is so balanced. I was frightened that I was maybe putting something out into the air that shouldn't be there—that there even is an option other than choice, because I don't believe there is."

She ultimately realized, however, that, as director, she had the last word. "I do not interpret this as anything but a pro-choice play—and what the play is saying is that the journey and the choice is a tough one; it's not easy for anybody, coming from any place."

Joe Stern, the Matrix's producing artistic director, says he tapped James for the assignment because she "approaches things by instinct; she's kinetic."

He also likes the way she works with actors. "Being an actress herself, and being married to an actor, she understands acting," he says, "and she understands behavior."

James grew up on New York's Upper West Side with her father—novelist, magazine writer and PR man Selwyn James—her homemaker mom, Faye, and her younger sisters Debbie (now an opera singer) and Melanie (a mom).

James started out as a dancer, a discipline she pursued seriously until about age 20, when people began telling her that she had such presence that she should be acting. She moved to Los Angeles, where she landed guest-starring roles in episodic television and small roles in movies, including the 1979 Chuck Norris flick "A Force of One." She and Henry met through a mutual friend, became pals and ended up performing opposite one another— as lovers—in a play. Soon they were playing for keeps.

The pair were among the founders of the much-admired L.A. Theatre Unit. It was while sifting through scripts for that group that James happened upon "Heartstopper" and the play suddenly unfolded—full-blown, in flowing, detailed scenes—in her mind. That had never happened before, and it excited her so much that she went to the company's board of directors and said she thought she could direct the piece.

"Heartstopper" required her to weave together 10 actors, 17 locations and an often fractured plot. "I staged montages set to music and got reviews comparing the play to an Alan Rudolph movie. I just saw it that way.

"If you don't know what the rules are, you don't know that you're breaking them—and then everybody thinks you're really exciting and innovative." She leans over her coffee cup and lets out a loud laugh.

The L.A. Theatre Unit disbanded, but James and her husband went on producing plays through their own Appian Way Productions.

When they happened upon "Palladium Is Moving," they knew they had found a keeper. It was, in many ways, an old-fashioned morality play, but set in the troubling new world of telephone salesmen who con people out of thousands by selling them phony products and investments. While programming software in one of the so-called boiler rooms of these high-pressure operations, Lenore Carlson soaked up the environment and turned it into a play. A friend of James' happened to attend a writing workshop with Carlson and passed the script along.

"I idly picked it up one night," James says, reliving the moment of discovery, "and went, 'Aah!"

She has now written a screenplay with Carlson and is set to make her feature directing debut when Persistent Pictures, the small independent company that has optioned it, moves into production. She also has been writing screenplays with another partner, and she staged "Better Days" in 1991 and "Little Egypt" in 1995.

James thrives on hard work. You can tell by the way her voice crackles with excitement as she describes a director's most grueling tasks.

"It's all-consuming," she says in a tone approaching reverence. "There's nothing else. There's fast food and obsessively long conversations about every nuance."

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