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THEATER : Gunplay in Her Play Is Not Aimed at Noted Mom

October 09, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oh, you can hear the tongues wagging.

Playwright-screenwriter Barra Grant writes a play--her first--titled "A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun." The play, at the Court Theatre in La Cienega's design district, involves a daughter at the end of her emotional tether, her mom--who refuses to fully acknowledge the dire situation--and a gun that keeps getting passed between them. The opening scene has the daughter firing her gun at mom.

And, get this, Grant's real-life mother is Bess Myerson.

You remember Bess Myerson. She's the former Miss America, the "I've Got a Secret" game-show panelist, the New York City official and unsuccessful 1980 U.S. Senate candidate. She was also tried--and acquitted--in 1988 on charges of conspiring to influence the divorce case of her boyfriend by arranging for the daughter of the judge hearing that case to get a city job.

With a high-profile mom like that, rumors are sure to follow that she's the mother behind daughter Barra's ultra-black comedy. But sitting in the sunny living room of Grant's Santa Monica home, both mother and daughter warn: Don't jump to conclusions.

"People would be way off-target reading too much autobiography into it," Grant says. "I had what I call a creative white light last November and wrote the play in a couple of weeks. It really began with an image I've always had, of a woman sitting on the bed at her own party, surrounded by a pile of coats and strangers."

When Grant finished Draft 1, the first person she allowed to see it was Myerson: "If Mom didn't like it, I reasoned, I would stop right there. I gave her one warning, and I guess it's the warning I give to everyone: 'Mom, it's not about us.' "

How could it be, Grant says rhetorically. The daughter character, Jess, is so convinced that her husband is cheating on her and that her life is ruined that she's set to shoot herself. Beatrice, her mother, will have none of it and pushes Jess to get ready for a party she had planned for that night--a party Jess had forgotten.

By play's end, Beatrice becomes perhaps more proficient with the gun than Jess. But then, it's that kind of "extreme piece of theater I was going for. I write a lot for television and film, but theater lets you go all the way to the limit in exploring an idea."

Fortunately for Grant, Myerson says she thought that "A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun" was "the most brilliant thing she's ever written. I thought she had captured the essence of mother-daughter relationships, how they can be funny, defensive, confrontational. And I told her that whatever else she was working on, well, drop it. I'll help fund this, and we'll get a show together."

Did Myerson, even for a moment, pause to consider the not-always-flattering portrait of Beatrice, and wonder . . . ?

"No," Myerson instantly responds, looking relaxed. "Not after Barra's warning. We trust and know each other very well. It's true that after I saw the first performance, I asked Barra if I did this or that wrong, and if she felt that I wasn't on her side. So she had to remind me again that this play wasn't about me.

"In fact, we both agree that (Beatrice) is really based on my mother, who could be oblivious and cruel at times. I studied piano (at) an early age, and became proficient enough to do concerts. I had just finished performing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall--I was 22--and my teacher told my mother afterward, 'Bess was wonderful.'

"All mother could say was, 'I can't understand why. She never practices.' "

Both Grant and Myerson have passed through multiple careers--Grant as an actress (she was a Mark Taper Forum regular in its New Theatre for Now series, "Major Barbara" and "The Three Sisters") and Myerson as a TV personality and controversial government figure. They have come out the other side closer to each other, they say, than ever before.

Regardless of how well "A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun" performs in Los Angeles, the long-term plan is to move the play to New York, where Myerson lives. (The theater will most likely be the Off-Broadway Promenade.) "It'll keep going," Grant says, "like we have."

Even though it will mean subjecting the play to that big, bad New York press?

"Yes. You see, Barra and I are both survivors," Myerson says with a touch of indomitable pride. "She survived an upbringing in the limelight. I survived ovarian cancer, as well as the false stories the press used to write about me.

"When I visit women in the cancer ward and tell them that I had it 23 years ago and lived, the lights go on for them. They can see that there's hope."

"A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun," Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 30. $22. (213) 466-1767.

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