LA JOLLA — Bill Hauptman knows about good ol' boys.
The North Texas New Yorker (his cultured drawl and cowboy boots are the giveaway) just reached back into his hometown to come up with Mickey and Bobby, the heroes of his new play, "Gillette," which opens Sunday at the La Jolla Playhouse.
"My hometown was created by an oil boom back after World War I, and my dad was in the oil business," he said. "All the people that I went to high school with were roughnecks and worked in the oil fields. That's the kind of people this play is about."
"Gillette" premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., just as Hauptman's musical, "Big River," was opening on Broadway. "Big River" won a Tony award for its 43-year-old author. "Gillette," which he calls "a comedy of disillusionment," kept nagging at him.
"The characters kept calling me to come back and do some more work on them," Hauptman said. "Now, the play takes in more of the town. I think I've finished paintin' in the whole landscape."
Hauptman was stretched out on a grassy corner outside the theater, seeming more at home poking a stick at the dirt than cloistered in some rehearsal hall.
"The play started as a short story about Mickey and Bobby living outdoors on the prairie and having two hookers over for dinner," he said. "It was like Experience and Youth, like one of them was the guy who'd seen it all before and the other one was a guy on his first trip out into the world. It just kept on expanding."
Several trips back to Texas in 1984, where his father was dying of cancer, put Hauptman back in touch with his old blue-collar buddies.
"I'd go down to the Stallion Drive-in and get a barbecue sandwich and a red draw--a beer with tomato juice in it, which is the way they like to drink in my hometown. I'd meet guys that I went to high school with, and we'd pick up with the same conversation that we left off with in 1961. I began to feel the urge to write about that."
Hauptman tried the "roughnecking" life when he was 18. Briefly.
"It's a ridiculous job. You have to just lift pipe and tote pipe, and man, it's heavy," he said. "You lift up that pipe the first time you think, 'Shoot, I can't possibly do this again,' and then you gotta do it again a hundred times before lunch.
"On top of that, it's noisy. The diesels on a rig are incredibly noisy. It's incredibly filthy and, of course, the new guy gets all the dirty jobs--you just end up covered with grease from top to toe and it's dangerous, too. But the pay is good."
The lure of high wages, what he calls the "boom-town mentality," is a major theme, not only in his play, but in Hauptman's vision of the blue-collar life.
"The truth is, usually what happens to people in the working class is they get paid a lot of money for doing numbingly boring jobs and their life is so constructed that they have to spend it almost as fast as they can make it," he said.
"These characters, they want to make a big score, they want to make a big pile and everything. But they don't really live any kind of mythic life. They live the working class life, and I know what that is. I'm really concerned with what it's like to live that way.
"My brother still lives that way. He works for the railroad. When he gets that thing (sweepstakes entry) from Publishers Clearinghouse, he sends it off every time, you know? I felt a need to put that on stage--the realities of it."
Friendship is just about the only thing blue-collar workers have left, Hauptman said. Better yet, love, which is one of the things his Mickey and Bobby are hope to find in "Gillette."
"There's a tradition among working-class people in the West of the good ol' boy, you know, and that's what Mickey is.
"A good ol' boy is someone who has a gift for life, who is a great storyteller, who knows how to be a man among men, but also how to interest women. He's got a million funny stories and a million great jokes. He knows how to drink and fight and raise hell.
"Mickey is really a gifted guy, but he doesn't have any outlet for it. His only expression is to be the world's greatest good ol' boy."
What's next for Hauptman? He'd like to write about New York "but it looks like the yuppies have got it covered." He's midway through a novel about his brother. Then he might get back to work on a Playhouse commission, an American folk opera about about John Wesley Powell and six Civil War veterans, former enemies, who set off on the first rafting expedition through the Grand Canyon--into the mouth of hell, to hear Hauptman describe it.
Seems this Texas boy still has a few good ol' stories in him.