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Seriously Funny

Playwright Richard Dresser's 'Gun-Shy,' Opening in Laguna, Looks Beyond the Laughter at People Unable to Commit

May 22, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last year, Richard Dresser wrote himself into what he calls "a playwright's vision of hell."

John Jory, producing director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, one of the nation's leading theater showcases, had gotten an idea: put on a short comedy to be set entirely in the front seat of an automobile--an actual automobile--which would be parked in front of the festival site, the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Jory commissioned the Los Angeles-based Dresser, several of whose plays had premiered at the Humana Festival, to write the car play. Dresser, whose comedy, "Gun-Shy," has its Southern California premiere this week at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, came up with "What Are You Afraid Of?" Two actors in the front seat; an audience of three in the back; 15 minutes running time.

So it was that Dresser found himself perched in the back middle seat of a black Lincoln, flanked by two critics who were reviewing his car play.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 24, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Play festival--The first name of Jon Jory, producing director of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, was misspelled in a May 22 story.

The one on the left ate a doughnut while she scribbled her notes, Dresser, a lively and amiable talker, recalled over the phone last week from his office in Santa Monica.

"As soon as she got out of the car, she said, 'I saw something exactly like this in Seattle.' " The other critic, from a small paper in the playwright's home state of Massachusetts, laughed heartily through the piece about a man who picks up a woman hitchhiker, fails to get up the nerve to speak, and, instead, fantasizes about a lifetime with her.

Dresser, 49, also had a memorable experience with a seatmate when he saw the premiere performance of "Gun-Shy" at the Humana Festival in 1997. His companion was his wife, who pointed out to him what he hadn't permitted himself to realize: that there was a lot of himself in this seemingly breezy, farfetched piece, filled with comical put-downs, farcical mishaps, underhanded schemes and other complications.

"Gun-Shy" is about Evie and Duncan, a New England couple who divorce after a long marriage and find new partners who are comically unable to commit. With the foursome gathered in a snowed-in house, nerves fraying in improbable ways, the new bonds unravel and Evie and Duncan start seeing their old marital bond in a new light.

Dresser lets the acerbic barbs and quipping comeback lines fly as he riffs on such contemporary subjects as fertility specialists, gun control, designer coffee, crash dieting and how to manage the domestic life of a family scattered on either coast.

The play has had several productions, including off-Broadway and in regional theaters. Dresser says the best versions yield not just laughs, but a lingering resonance in which audiences will ponder the forces that turn people gun-shy when it comes to committing and communicating their deepest feelings.

"My approach to this kind of play is dead serious and very emotional," he said. "It could be told in a very earnest way, but it's told in what I hope is a more seductive way. You're entertained by what's happening, but maybe it hits you afterward. I've seen productions of the play where they simply go for the comedy and let it rip. To me, whether audiences like it or not, [this interpretation] is unsuccessful. A good production of the play will deal with what's going on under the surface."

Dresser has lots of experience writing for television, a medium in which surface laughter is typically all there is. A good theatrical laugh is a much more complex and contextual thing than a typical sitcom laugh, he says.

"If the lines are simply clever but don't come out of the character and situation, they're what I consider very expensive laughs. You might laugh at it, but it takes you out of the play."

Dresser stumbled into writing as a graduate student in communications at the University of North Carolina. He took an elective course on dramatic writing, found he had a knack for dialogue--he had deemed his previous attempts to write short fiction failures--and won a collegiate play festival. His plans changed from a career in radio to one in the theater.

Dresser made his name in the late 1980s with "Better Days" and "The Downside," satiric plays about the American workplace during a less exuberant economic time.

Jay Tarses, creator of the acclaimed television series, "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," caught one of Dresser's plays at Humana and offered him a job.

"It was a totally distorted introduction to television," Dresser said--because it was such a good experience, with creative independence for the show's writers. Dresser has seen the other side of Hollywood since moving to L.A. eight years ago with his wife and son, who is now 9. In fact, he and Tarses just finished writing an unorthodox book about it called "How to Eat Like a Writer."

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