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In Touch With the Supernormal

Pamela Gray's play about a lesbian's search for romance strikes a crossover chord.

November 24, 1996|Laurie K. Schenden | Laurie K. Schenden is a Times staff writer

A child who grows up eating maple syrup kept in embalming fluid bottles is either going to have some serious psychological problems or a killer sense of humor. Fortunately for playwright Pamela Gray, and for theatergoers, she leans heavily toward the latter.

When Gray goes off on a favorite topic (whether it's playwriting and screenwriting or house cats and wild tigers), she displays all the angst, anxiety and humor of a stressed-out Richard Lewis.

Her father, who, like Lewis, was a stand-up comic and later a funeral supplies salesman in New York, provided the comedic foundation for Gray. Now 40, she is unleashing her own witty streak with a hit play, "Supernormal Clutches," at Celebration Theatre in Hollywood.

The play--whose title is taken from the actual, larger-than-normal nests made by so-called "lesbian" sea gulls on the Channel Islands--is attracting a crossover audience not because of its laughs, Gray says, but because of its universal theme.

"This is a play about the different ways that we search for love. And each character approaches that search in a unique way. That is a topic everyone can relate to."

Audiences apparently identify with Randy Gold (played by Susan Mosher), who approaches love like a warrior going into battle. She consistently finds herself on the losing side, "but is ultimately a romantic trapped in a cynic's body," Gray says.

Robert Schrock, artistic director at Celebration, encouraged Gray to expand the play from a one-act performed at the theater in 1994. Once he read the full-length version, he says, he was eager to produce it.

"I couldn't be happier with the result," Schrock says.

"Supernormal Clutches," directed by Dona Guevara Hill, takes place over a five-year period in Randy Gold's apartment, a modern, airy pad with hardwood floors and simple furnishings--not unlike Gray's own Santa Monica apartment. In the first act, Gold's girlfriend, Peg, is moving out, and Gold struggles not only with letting go of that relationship but also with the prospect of having to form a new one.

While romantic relationships are the heart of the play, another issue is the main character's relationship to herself as an artist, in this case as a photographer. Randy diminishes her own work with such lines as, "You're looking at the Mapplethorpe of feline photography." How that relationship winds up paralleling or interacting with Randy's relationships with other people is significant to Gray.

"Here's a main character who in the beginning has abandoned the artist part of herself for a relationship," Gray says. "Later, she uses the search for love as a way of avoiding her increasing success as an artist. ["How am I supposed to start a new career when I can't even find a date?" Randy asks.] By the end of the play, she is completely focused on her art and is using that to avoid finding love."

The play is, Gray acknowledges, semi-autobiographical. The main character's pessimism, sarcasm and cynicism are "certainly" based on her own experience. The character of Randy is "an extreme, exaggerated version of myself," Gray says.

That's one reason why the writer thought it intriguing to send Randy on a blind date. She "desperately wants it to work out, but is so scared that it won't," Gray says. She automatically puts herself on the defensive.

"Tell me about my future ex-lover," is Randy's response to being told she's getting set up. "I prefer a May-June break-up . . . by the time summer rolls around, I look great in a bathing suit." The scenario that follows is the core of the third act, which was Gray's original one-act play.

"This was really different from any project I've written," Gray says. "I worked backward in time." She developed the first two acts based on clues laid out in the original one-act. Things that characters said became bigger parts of their personalities and histories.

Personally, Gray assures, she's worked out issues with her own relationships and with her artist self. But the obstacles were deep-rooted. For instance, she was encouraged to write as she was growing up, she says, but never encouraged to write as a career. "My mother would say to me, 'You don't have to love your job, most people don't.' I felt my soul was being trampled on," Gray says.

Even now, upon hearing that New York producers are interested in taking "Supernormal Clutches" off-Broadway, Gray says the first question her parents asked was, "Are they going to pay you for that?"

Self-doubt is another inherent obstacle, Gray says. She identified it while teaching college writing courses, which she's done the last 15 years in Oakland, Boston and Los Angeles.

"Women come into those classes with more doubt about whether they have the right to write," Grays says. "Women aren't raised to believe that they deserve to have a voice or that their experiences are valuable."

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