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Living a Fantasy : Playwright, in a comic look at the game of self-images, says our illusions about ourselves can foul up our relationships.

March 24, 1995|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

STUDIO CITY — Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? No. It's just Ordinaryman, sitting on a sofa. He thinks the world revolves around him. He's fantasizing again.

Playwright Stephen Keep Mills, who frankly admits to his own free-form fantasizing, thinks it's a disease of epidemic proportions. He also thinks his serious comedy "Squareone," opening tonight at the Lionstar Theatre, might just be the holistic medicine to combat same.

The fantasies Mills is concerned with aren't the Walter Mitty variety. They're the fantasies about ourselves and our partners that we bring into relationships, those personas we think protect us but which only serve to build walls.

Very simply, as Mills puts it, "If we do help with the dishes, we want praise for it. Meanwhile my wife will do stuff and expect nothing to be said about it. If I make the bed, I want it recognized. It's ridiculous."

Mills has created a series of eight vignettes as variations on the theme of domestic fantasy, taken to what he calls the "ultimate limit," and explaining how this particular disease can be recognized.

"Why disease?" Mills asks. "Because there's something very unhealthy about it. It's not a healthy way to live. We go to absurd lengths to try to make our own dreams come true, at the expense of ourselves and each other. I've been through relationships. And I know where I've gone wrong, and I know why."

The play's message is that we are all still on square one in this game of self-images, Mills says. "That's where we start from, and we don't get off it. We haven't really evolved in our ability to reduce the importance of these fantasies. They guide us. They drive us. Until we drive them, we will stay on square one."

As an actor, Mills has appeared on and off-Broadway, at Actors Theatre of Louisville and South Coast Repertory, and was a regular on Polly Holliday's TV sitcom, "Flo." He has won awards for his writing, recently for 1994's "A Cigar at the Beach" in Hollywood, and also for his directing.

In addition to writing "Squareone," Mills also appears in the production. For him, it's a sort of therapy, working through on stage the problems that fantasies create in relationships. He says he hopes it will be therapeutic for audiences too.

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The sort of fantasy he is talking about is easily explainable. Mills has a 4-year-old son he can identify with completely, he explains, in terms of the boy's demands, and what he expects. Those demands and expectations, the playwright says, follow us into maturity.

"Of course," he says with a laugh, "it's a little more appropriate in his case than it is in mine. This is all disguised as you get older. That's strongly suggested in the play. The prologue is about this, about what we men think we should be. Until that changes, women are in trouble. We are coming off a pretty high expectation of ourselves, pretty perfectionistic in how we want to be perceived and what we think our effectiveness should be, our power, our status. It's pretty hard for women to live with that. The male ego is fragile."

Rhonda Reynolds, artistic director of Nailing the Kipper, the theater company staging "Squareone," is one of the actors appearing in the play.

"In the play," Reynolds explains, "it's not just that the men are focused on work and the women are focused on romance. He parodies equally both sides. There's a female fantasy scene which deals with the ideal man. The play isn't sexist at all, in any way."

One of the vignettes deals with a couple whose fantasy is that they're perfect parents. But they're both working and never home. In their minds, they have to do this to provide for the children. Meanwhile, they leave before the kids wake up and return when the kids are asleep.

Reynolds says: "The play is about how fantasies have come to make up the total person because of all these outside things they're bombarded with, so that you don't even realize that you are the way you are, or that you're behaving the way you're behaving. Your relationship is going the way it is because you can't see clearly."

Being unable to view ourselves clearly keeps sending us back to Mills' square one, which the playwright emphatically states is like a prison.

"We're in jail with these fantasies," he says. "Part of the play's purpose is to break those bars and let people out."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN Where: Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Special Sunday performance 8 p.m. April 2. Ends May 13.

Price: $15.

Call: (213) 466-1767.

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