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A Theatrical Life Without Road Shows : Stage: In an often-rootless profession, playwright Jerry Mayer and his producer-wife Emily Mayer have found a measure of stability.


PACIFIC PALISADES — Life in the theater is so transient. As you move from city to city, you never stop long enough to put down any roots, and sometimes you don't even stay long enough to unpack a suitcase.

But for playwright Jerry Mayer and his wife, producer Emily Mayer, the rules of theatrical rootlessness seem to have been suspended.

They have lived in the same house in Pacific Palisades--with ocean and mountain views--for a quarter of a century. For much of their last half a dozen years, going to work has usually meant a short commute to the Santa Monica Playhouse, where a succession of Jerry Mayer's plays have been staged. The latest, "Killjoy: A Comedy of Terrors," has been playing there for seven months.

Many audience members travel farther, coming from the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay to watch the romantic comedy/murder mystery about a woman who wants to do away with her ex-husband.

The Mayers have an even shorter commute to their separate offices in their rustic home, which was built by Jerry Mayer and includes several of his wood carvings.

Just outside his office is a wooden sign he made that says, "Writer in Training."

Despite the sign, Mayer, 62, is a veteran of the entertainment business, with scores of TV credits spanning more than two decades.

He wrote episodes for shows such as "MASH," "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Tabitha." He worked as a story consultant for the long-running "Bob Newhart Show," was executive producer/writer for "The Facts of Life" and wrote for Mitzi Gaynor.

Now he is a playwright with a string of hits, all of which have been produced by his wife and presented at the quaint, 92-seat Santa Monica Playhouse.

Of his urge seven years ago to begin writing plays, Mayer said, "I decided I wanted to write something that was really my own work. You start to want to control your own artistry.

"I always thought I should be writing movies and plays. It's scarier. . . . It's a whole new form. This has to be worthy of people paying money to come see it."

Unlike most playwrights, though, Mayer found success right away. His first comedy, "Almost Perfect," won a Dramalogue Award and ran for 15 months at the Santa Monica venue. Next came the long-running "Aspirin & Elephants," "A Love Affair," and now "Killjoy."

The first three plays, the Mayers said in a recent interview in their living room, were loosely autobiographical.

The two St. Louis natives met when he was 18 and she was 16. They married three years later and had three children. Jerry, while moonlighting doing cartoons and jokes for comedians such as Phyllis Diller, worked in his father's construction business until he and Emily moved to Los Angeles in 1966.

"Almost Perfect" chronicles some of Jerry Mayer's work and marriage frustrations. "I guess I had the seven-year itch," he said. "It was a coming-of-age play . . . about a guy who falls in love with his wife. (He) has a terrific girl but it takes a while to realize it." Now Mayer is writing a screenplay version of "Almost Perfect."

With "Killjoy," Mayer has left autobiographical territory altogether.

"I had to strike out and write about other people," he said. In the play, Mayer has planted murderous thoughts into the mind of a fictional character, Carol Sterling. Carol considers Victor, her ex-husband, an "egocentric killjoy" and all-around bad person whose only redeeming quality is that he's a Cubs fan.

However facetiously, Jerry Mayer invites viewers to consider concocting a murder too. After all, he suggests, what enraged, divorced person, after wasting decades with a creep, hasn't had such killer thoughts?

"We're dealing with people like ourselves who feel the only answer is murder," Mayer said. "Could you or I get to the point where you do the deed?"

"Killjoy," directed by Chris DeCarlo, deals humorously with the guilt-ridden Carol's quandary. At one point, she frantically confides her sinful plans to an offbeat, sacrilegious priest, who in his endearing Irish brogue, dispenses unorthodox, ungodly advice--the kind you might expect from Mel Brooks. Carol has turned to him for advice because her rabbi is "off on a male-bonding weekend."

The play also touches knowingly on a number of problems facing divorced couples. For instance, it focuses not only on the plight of the ex-wife, but also on the quandary of the offspring toiling in their father's business.

There is, for example, "a father who is so immersed in his business that he doesn't get a chance to do as good a job at parenting as he should," Mayer said. "These are all identifiable things."

While Jerry Mayer upholds the creative end, Emily Mayer oversees actors, casting and ticket sales.

"She's really good at it," her husband said. "She has very good controls. . . . It takes a certain amount of humility as well. She will answer phones for a day if it requires it."

"We're all there for the same purpose," Emily Mayer said. "'At the same time, we have a lot of fun."

Her husband added: "It's like going to summer camp."

"Killjoy: A Comedy of Terrors," is performed at the Santa Monica Playhouse on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 6:30 and 9:15 p.m., and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Ticket information: (310) 394-9779.

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