Tabi Cooper, star of the play "Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends," has a few boyfriends of her own. Girlfriends too. They are a jovial group the actress met last year at the Glendale Self Aid Workshop for the mentally retarded, where she spent two months researching the play.
Because the play deals with retardation, practically no one, including the workshop staff, thought it would be a hit. But, almost 10 months after opening, the production is still playing to full houses at the Eagle Theater in Beverly Hills.
That keeps Cooper busy four nights a week. But she still finds time once or twice a month to visit her new-found friends on Glenoaks Boulevard. After all, Cooper said, they taught her how to play Andrea, the funny and touching main character in David Willinger's play.
"Tabi's pretty special," said Carole Jouroyan, executive director of the Glendale Assn. for the Retarded. When Tabi visits the residents there, "she goes around and remembers their names and takes a personal interest. She makes them feel better," Jouroyan said.
At the workshop, employees are paid for simple tasks such as sorting newspapers for packaging. The association runs the workshop and nearby Hamilton House, a residential home for the retarded.
At times slapstick and compassionate, but never condescending, "Andrea" focuses on the trials and tribulations of a 30-year-old retarded woman who has two suitors, named Ritchie and Freddie, who also are retarded. Playwright Willinger based the story on his sister, Andrea, who lives in a home for the retarded in Upstate New York.
For the role, Cooper first drew on her memories of an uncle who was retarded. In addition, Cooper said, she and the other actors in the play devoted several months to research because they wanted to go beyond mere behavioral mimicry and get at the complex inner workings of their characters.
"It was scary at first. The play could have been taken so many different ways. But I knew if I was going to play a retarded person, I just damn well better know what retarded people are like," Cooper said.
With that goal in mind, Cooper and her co-stars, Robert Fieldsteel and Chris Pass, visited homes and workshops for the retarded. There they studied speech patterns and body language, observed petty fights and enduring friendships and took notes at lunch hours and talent shows. Often, they just hung around with residents to sop up the rhythm of their daily lives.
Cooper said the actors spent the most time at the Glendale Workshop and Hamilton House because its staff proved most receptive. They also did research at the Burbank Center for the Retarded, Tierra del Sol in Sunland and Villa Esperanza in Altadena. Clients at those homes range from mildly to severely retarded, Cooper said.
Models for Characters
Weaving bits and pieces from various residents, Cooper and her co-stars constructed the complete characters of Andrea, Ritchie and Freddie. At Hamilton House, for instance, Cooper recalled one resident who walked around the kitchen with a purse tightly clutched around her shoulder.
"She wasn't going anywhere, she was just holding onto her possessions. And that's how Andrea got her purse," Cooper said, referring to her character's obsessive concern with a handbag.
Earlier this month, when Cooper made one of her periodic visits to the workshop, life suddenly imitated art when Roxanne, a spunky 19-year-old who has not seen or heard of the play, announced to a visitor: "I've got two boyfriends."
Cooper was delighted. She drifted from group to group, greeting old friends and examining new baubles. At a dress rehearsal for a talent show at the home, she yelled encouragement to the retarded participants and clapped fiercely.
Spur of the Moment
In their research, the actors discovered that the retarded love to sing and dance unabashedly. In the play, Andrea and Ritchie lock arms for a romantic dance and sing "This Land Is Your Land" while Freddie, who is left on the sidelines, mopes disconsolately with a basketball.
"Retarded people are totally spur of the moment. They're natural actors; they love to be on stage," Cooper said.
Apparently, such was not the case with Cooper, who grew up in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles and said she suffered for 26 tortuous years before getting up the nerve to try acting.
At UCLA, she earned a bachelor's degree in design and worked for a while in the garment industry. But, in her spare time, she hung out with actors and attended cast parties.
"Every time I went and saw a show . . . I got a headache because I wanted so badly to be on stage," she recalls.
A Move to Acting
Finally, she confided in a friend who teaches drama and he began to tutor her privately. Later, she moved to New York and took lessons at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, supporting herself by performing in dinner theater on Long Island. She eventually moved back to Los Angeles and worked in small playhouses.