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Haunted by Mortality : 'Cut Flowers,' a dark view of a hedonistic generation, dramatizes the undoing of best-laid plans. It comes from playwright Sage Allen's own difficult past.

March 11, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

BURBANK — "It was a troubling . . . strenuous . . . time."

Playwright Sage Allen sums up her emotion-wracked years from 1984 to 1988--years when she didn't write one play, years when one loved one after another was dying--with a short pause between each word. They come with a sigh, as if a great weight was upon her, then lifted.

"But of course," she adds, "the play comes from those years."

The play is "Cut Flowers," now at the Victory Theatre, and it amounts to a dark summation of the bitter fruits of the '60s. Both Allen and co-stars Salome Jens and Joanna Miles admit, with a slight catch in the throat, that the play exposes something deeply wrong with the 1960s' spirit of hedonistic liberty.

"It's easy to think that the title," says Allen, "refers to Devon and Katy," her central characters (played by Miles and Jens, respectively), who are, like Allen and her actresses, in their 50s. The passing of life is pressing down on these women, perhaps especially Katy, a fading actress who might be thought of as a Barbara Hershey without the comeback.

"But Jamie, Katy's son, is also cut, cut off in his youth by drugs and aimlessness," says Allen. This, she insists, is far from a mere lament for aging boomers.

"At the same time," she adds, "I purposely made both sons messed up, so that even though Devon's son Skeet had the kind of strong and loving father Jamie lacked, he still ended up an alcoholic. Skeet may now seem on the rebound, but he's still capable of falling, still a hustler."

All of which means, in Allen's view, that the presence or absence of a father can't by itself explain the violent anomie afflicting so many of today's youth--the byproduct of a now-regretful Love Generation.

Allen sets her mortality-haunted drama where she lives, in Studio City, "where I can hear gunshots some nights" and where, shortly after the Jan. 17 earthquake, a couple in a nearby home were found slain. "We don't hear about middle-class troubles, but when I consider a dozen friends of mine, most of whom have had kids who've been in jail or run away or died, and that they were given all of life's advantages and still end up lost or worse . . . I just don't get it. What happened to them?"

"Cut Flowers," written in 1988 originally as a one-act for the Ensemble Studio Theatre, is Allen's way of exploring, if not answering, that question. But if it's also somewhat autobiographical, Jens is a bit more direct on that point than the author. "Devon is Sage, absolutely, a creative woman whose life has really been up and down."

Allen was born deep in the heart of the Texas Panhandle, in Pampa, "where the oil money provided a lot of theater and culture." After her family moved to Austin, Allen attended the University of Texas, but she yearned for the New York theater nexus of the '50s and transferred to Columbia. However, with her mother suffering from cancer, Allen felt the pull back to Texas--the first of several times in her life when family ties pulled her away from professional passions.

Still, she did return to New York and began singing with the society orchestra led by Lester Lanin, to whom she was married for five years. "Lester was much older. I was immature, and it couldn't last," she recalls. Once again, back in Texas, Allen married her college sweetheart: "It was meant to be, I think, since Barry had also just divorced. It was a big change, since Lester's world of celebrities and royalty was a totally different pot of paint from Texas."

Barry's architecture career took them back to New York, where Allen became involved with both the Actors' Studio--artistic home of Jens and Miles--and a hotbed for new plays, the American Place Theatre. But when Barry's work took him to Florida and Allen felt cut off from theater, "I sort of did my own thing, the way a lot of women in the '70s did, and came out alone to California and connected with theater here."

She was hit by another shock when Barry suffered a heart attack, but soon he came with her back to California, where Allen determined that she could write plays--"and I decided to start with the next thing that happened to me, which was a wrong number."

The wrong number became "Mobile Home" (1980), followed two years later by the Orwellian "Bigtime Boogie," directed by revered experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Again, real life intruded: Barry died in 1984, and Allen's mother died the following year. "I was emotionally wrung out," Allen says, "but I think in the end, the writing is better for everything I've gone through."

Jens and Miles did the first reading of "Cut Flowers" at the Lee Strasberg Center's Playwrights Unit workshop, and in an uncommon act of dedication, helped see it through to a full production. Jens says it was Miles who "nudged and pushed us" to produce the play, but it was Jens who urged Jules Aaron to direct.

"This play's a wake-up call," says Jens. "It's saying that this society is in trouble."

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