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A Wrong Turn at Albuquerque : New Mexico playwright Graebner shows people dissatisfied with life's rules

September 15, 1991|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Grubb Graebner has a name that perhaps only his mother could love.

The last name has a history. In the American Lutheran community, the Graebner men carried on the ministry that had been a calling for generations.

But when a boyhood pal couldn't pronounce Graebner and called him Grubb for short, it stuck. It also made it very easy to avoid the cloth. After all, what kind of name is Grubb for a minister?

"I guess," he muses, "it was a very effective way of rebelling against my family." But it might also be a very effective name for a playwright whose characters themselves tend to rebel against prescribed patterns. Whether it's Graebner's eleven-episodes-and-counting soap opera play, "Last of the Neo-Modern Fang People," or his modern tragedy, "Wanted," opening Thursday at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood (the late-night Saturday home for the "Fang People"), he shows people dissatisfied with the rules of life's game.

This even extends to the afterlife: In the latest installment of the 34-character "Fang People," three of them are dead, but still carrying on their steamy love-hate triangle in heaven (or is it hell?).

In "Wanted," Toni is a woman who goes to all lengths to get a child. "She's much like Richard III," Graebner suggests, "who thinks he's outside society's moral bounds because he was born with a hump. Toni feels unwanted, and funnels those feelings into the intense desire to have a baby."

Graebner's blue eyes could fill a wide screen and seem to give off a heat all their own. Yet his manner is avuncularly cool and far from the obsessiveness of a Toni. Born in Chicago but raised and educated in New Mexico, he speaks in the thoughtful, patient rhythm of a Southwesterner. But just as the tragic ways of "Wanted" reveal a completely different writer than the one suggested in the campy, oversexed "Fang People," so Graebner isn't just a slow, easygoing guy blowing in from the sand dunes.

His conversation is peppered with ideas and asides. He may launch into the ways art distorts science ("We live in a very scientific country, yet we still haven't tried to get scientific themes into drama"), or the history of plagues, or feminism and anthropology. At Albuquerque's Vortex Theatre, his theater residence and the birthplace of "Fang People" and "Wanted," audiences always catch jokes that he'll insert about, say, atomic physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. "In L.A.," he notes, "they don't seem to get it, so I cut it."

Graebner, 41, loves talking about the amazingly varied New Mexican community that he is part of. Growing up in Los Alamos, the American heart of the nuclear industry, gave him a close-up view of the scientific world: "My pals had dads who did things like nuclear fission." In Albuquerque, where he attended the University of New Mexico, he found an even more unlikely place, which has fed his imagination ever since. Indeed, "Fang People" is, on one level, a comic take on every strata of Albuquerque society.

"You gotta understand that Albuquerque is a major transit point, so it gets a lot of transients, people who may not know where they're going with their life or anything else. It also has a big research community. And there's Kirkland Air Force Base.

"In 'Wanted,' Toni comes from Seattle to Albuquerque with her husband, who's stationed at Kirkland. This was a way of combining the town's aimless people with some of the military crowd."

But Toni isn't purely Graebner's invention. She's modeled on an actual product of Albuquerque's social quicksand, who committed a crime that blistered the city like a sirocco. Graebner says he wanted to begin the play with a sense of documentary realism, "and then we go into her world, shifting from the present to the past, where we don't get 'plot' clues as much as we get emotional clues. It allows for a nice non-linearity which is true to the mind . . . and a very taxing role."

Although Los Angeles may not pick up on his Einsteinian humor, it gives him a rich supply of actors. Lisa Greenman, who directed the original "Fang People" at the Vortex and the first episode at Theatre of NOTE a year ago, remarks, "We cast 19 actors in Albuquerque, but they doubled up on the roles. At Theatre of NOTE, which has this large group of membership actors, we were able to give work to over 30 actors."

One of them, Jonathan Tolins (whose comedy, "The Climate," is continuing its own long Hollywood run), is directing "Wanted," and Graebner says he's intrigued by watching how his work is interpreted outside Albuquerque's city limits. "I allow the director to put his stamp on because my motto is, 'Don't mess with the director, and don't direct your own work.' The close, line-by-line labor was done for the premiere production. Now, I can let it go. I haven't even gone to one of Jonathan's rehearsals."

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