Dayton Callie can't exactly call theater his first love.
"I've had around 60 jobs," said the actor-playwright, whose relationship comedy "Survival of the Heart" premieres tonight at Theatre West in Studio City, kicking off the theater's 30th season. "I've been a bartender and waiter, worked in a mothball factory, sold cigarettes, polished ashtrays, worked at a racetrack, drove trucks, sold macaroni, been a rug shampooer, a candy distributor and worked on a bread truck. But mostly, I was a musician."
Then, 10 years ago, while visiting an actor friend in New York, fate intervened: Callie wound up taking over the friend's role in an off-Broadway play. "I had no idea what I was doing or where I was," he said. "But I liked it." As he left music behind and threw himself into acting, Callie soon found himself drawn to writing for the medium. "I always liked the idea of saying things through songs," he said, "and plays are a way of singing, telling a story."
In the case of "Survival of the Heart," the story is undeniably personal, charting the bitter aftermath of a failed romance. In real life, the 45-year-old Callie is divorced, with a grown daughter and son, and two grandchildren--all of whom remain in his native New Jersey. The stage version includes Callie's character (played by the actor), his son, a longtime friend and neighbor, and two females new to the circle. "I don't write fantasy," Callie said. "It's got a lot of truths."
Director Mark W. Travis agrees. "It's not dissimilar from the other stuff I've been doing, because it's a true story," explained Travis, who explored the solo autobiographical form in his local stagings of Paul Linke's "Time Flies When You're Alive" (1987), Shane McCabe's "No Place Like Home" (1988) and Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale" (1989). "Dustin Hoffman isn't Willy Loman, but Dayton Callie \o7 is\f7 this guy. He's using an investigative process to poke into these dark corners of his own life."
What most appealed to him was the universality of the play's theme. "It deals with the end of a relationship and that feeling of failure," Travis explained, "the struggle of letting go of someone you've invested so much in, starting a new life, moving on." In spite of the potentially painful subject material, Travis stresses that the show is not a downer: "The wonderful thing is that it's a comedy. It's got honest humor. It's funny. And it's very, very real."
Callie and Travis are members of Theatre West, where "Survival" has been workshopped for more than a year; an earlier version debuted last fall in the theater's new works Oktoberfest. The play's title, Callie said, sums up his vantage on the story's subject matter--and his own life motto. "I've always been able to find the humor in things," he said. "Humor is necessary to survive. The pain can be so overwhelming, we have to laugh at ourselves."
That doesn't mean he's at all happy about splaying his personal business for all the world to see. "I feel very uncomfortable talking about it" is all that Callie ventures when the questions turn to the details of the play's real-life romance. "So when I'm up on stage, I try not to personalize it. I don't think of the character as me. I'm just one of many--many men, many women--who have gone through relationship breakups."
The decision to play himself was largely practical. "Although I'm terrified as a playwright, I don't feel as vulnerable as an actor," Callie offered. "And I'm still pretty new out here. In New York, I'd be doing two or three plays a year, and people knew me as an actor. But when I came out here, to get onstage, I had to go back to square one. I figured if I have to start over, I might as well start in my own adventure."
\o7 "Survival of the Heart" plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through Feb. 29 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West\f7 ,\o7 in Studio City. Tickets: $12 to $15. Call (213) 466-1767.\f7