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THEATER : She'd Rather Do It Herself : Beth Henley turned to friends to get her new play off the ground. But when it came time to find a director, the writer took matters into her own hands

July 11, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer.

It was a long day for playwright Beth Henley and actress Holly Hunter. There they were at Henley's dining room table, hour after hour, writing letters to pals asking for production money. And they weren't just handwriting each letter--they even used colored pencils and crayons to add drawings.

Their personal appeal apparently worked. Forty people got the letters, and more than 20 responded with checks to get Henley's play "Control Freaks" produced in her adopted hometown.

No matter that the dark comedy, opening Friday for three weeks, will play the small Met Theatre, a 99-seat house in a pretty tough neighborhood near Western and Santa Monica. Henley is the Pulitzer-winning playwright who brought us the wacky MaGrath sisters of "Crimes of the Heart." And "Control Freak's" star lineup includes Hunter, just off a best actress win in Jane Campion's film "The Piano" at the Cannes International Film Festival, as well as Carol Kane, Bill Pullman and the lesser-known Wayne Pere.

In fact, Henley wrote "Control Freaks" specifically for the Met, as well as for longtime collaborator Hunter, who is also producing the show. The two women are among 18 writers, actors and others on the Met board, and the prolific playwright says she felt that "I should write something for us to do."

So what did she write? Newlywed Betty (Kane) is fresh from a wedding ceremony at the Elvis Presley Chapel in Las Vegas. Carl, the groom (Pullman), is on his fourth marriage and seems awfully frisky. Sister (Hunter) is a little too attached to her brother, talks to herself, has spontaneous orgasms and is given to wearing wigs. Don't even ask about weird Paul (Pere).

Actually, says Henley, "once I had written it, I didn't have the heart to try to explain it to a director, so I thought, 'I'm going to direct this myself.' " But she had previously directed just one other play--a staged reading of college friend Colleen Dodson's one-woman show "Straight Arrows." So to "gain a shred more confidence," she workshopped, then directed, her play first at Chicago's 85-seat Center Theater last year.

Hunter didn't play Sister in Chicago, although she did see the show there. But despite all the current attention to Hunter's TV and film career--most recently, a well-noted performance in "The Firm" as well as the Cannes win--the actress has set aside this sizable chunk of time for her friend's play.

How could she not? For one thing, Hunter considers Henley "one of my closest friends I've ever had in my life." For another, she speaks appreciatively of the play as "a long poem." She was even willing to take on the additional role of producer for the first time because, she says simply, "there was no other way it was going to be done."

The play's other producer, David Beaird, another longtime Henley friend, apparently felt the same way.

"Beth's first play ("Crimes of the Heart") was a home run, and it would have been so easy for her to just do it over and over again," says Beaird, who also writes and directs TV and films. "But she's an artist. 'Before I can be your producer,' I told her, 'I want to know what you want out of this production.' She said, 'I want one perfect night of theater.' "

Henley is waiting at the very first table in the Hollywood coffee shop. Does she want to be near the door, perhaps on the lookout for her interviewer? Not Henley. She wants a good view of the spinning pie slices, she explains.

Henley, 41, just looks conventional, with her Southern grace and style, so ladylike in manner and dress that she should almost be wearing white gloves. Demure and almost fragile in demeanor, she wears minimal makeup and jewelry and speaks so softly you have to strain to hear her speak.

But 10 minutes into a conversation with her, it's clear that all those paradoxical, eccentric characters weren't bred in a vacuum. There she sits, picking at her scrambled eggs, smiling sweetly as she speaks of rejected screenplays dropped on her porch like so many dead children, and contemplating, in a whisper, just where that dark, dark Willard family in "Control Freaks" may have come from.

Actress Sissy Spacek told Ms. magazine that she and her "Crimes of the Heart" co-stars Jessica Lange and Diane Keaton (in the play's 1986 film version) studied Henley to pick up some Southern idiosyncrasies. She was a great role model.

The playwright hails from a South immortalized by Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams and described in Film Comment magazine as a place "where Br'er Rabbit meets Eugene O'Neill."The second of Charles and Lydy Henley's four daughters, she was born in Jackson, Miss., where some of her family still lives.

Like Wendy Wasserstein, another young, female Pulitzer winner, Henley effectively mines the world she knows best. "Crimes" is set in her father's hometown of Hazlehurst, Miss., and "The Miss Firecracker Contest" (which became the 1989 film "Miss Firecracker," also starring Hunter) in her mother's hometown of Brookhaven, Miss.

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