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Light Years From Southern Noir

Tired of working on period pieces, playwright Beth Henley tries her hand at an absurd look at future L.A.

October 01, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

About 10 years ago, Beth Henley and a dinner companion chanced upon a sidewalk graphologist on Melrose Avenue. The handwriting analyst offered her friend all kinds of effusive praise, so the playwright plunked down $10 hoping for similar plaudits.

Instead, she was told she was "a measly, petty and untalented loser."

"That's all from my handwriting!" the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright says in good-humored outrage. 'I just wrote two sentences! I was devastated!"

Because Henley had been having difficulties with her writing, the incident kicked her into action. "I started to study some graphology, trying to improve my handwriting," says Henley, as she perches in the middle of a big couch in her Westwood office. "[I thought] if I changed my handwriting, I could change my life--if I could only make my Ls better, not so scrunched up!"

Thus the birth of "Signature," in which a central character, Boswell T-Thorp, tries to change his fate by changing his handwriting. In a broader sense, the play addresses the yearning to leave one's mark in the big Book of Life as it follows four characters in search of food, shelter, fame and love in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles hit by a series of environmental disasters.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 3, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater date--"Signature," a play at the Actors' Gang Theater, closes Oct. 29. An incorrect date was reported in a Sunday Calendar story.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 8, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater date--"Signature," a play at the Actors' Gang Theater, closes Oct. 29. An incorrect date was reported in the Oct. 1 edition of Sunday Calendar.

"Signature" makes its West Coast premiere at Actors' Gang Theater on Saturday through the efforts of director Veronica Brady and the Bloy Street Productions/Naked Angels Theatre Company.

Set about 50 years from now, the futuristic time frame is a first for Henley, 48, who is better known for droll works of Southern comedy noir, like "Crimes of the Heart," for which she won the Pulitzer in 1981, and "The Miss Firecracker Contest" (both were made into movies). Locally, she is also known as one of the founders of the Loretta Theatre, the producer behind "Detachments" at the Tiffany Theater.

Just before writing "Signature," Henley explains, she had labored over two period pieces--"The Lucky Spot," set in the Depression '30s, and "Abundance," set in 1860s Wyoming--and was weary from all the historical research required for those plays. "I just really wanted to use my imagination, to totally have fun."

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For Henley, part of the fun in writing "Signature" came from inventing the jargon to jibe with the rough and raw setting of L.A. in the future: "Big splash of the season" (the hot celebrity of the moment); "celebrity chase" (a mega-celebrity bash akin to the post-Oscars party); "ultra surgery" (wherein a smile can be permanently etched into the face). She filled the play with broadly drawn characters, rat-a-tat scene changes and quippy dialogue.

All of this takes place in the year 2052, where the remaining population of disaster-torn Los Angeles finds itself living in the Hollywood Hills. "We imagine L.A. has taken every wrong turn there can be," says Brady, "and now everyone's living around the Hollywood sign, surrounded by water and sludge."

Here, the letters of the famed landmark have become buildings--the H is a television satellite station; the D a pier; the W the home of Boswell (Ed Trotta); and an O the home of the graphologist character, Reader (Susan Barnes).

Boswell, a conceptual artist-philosopher, is riding on the fame of inventing the Box Theory, a vague idea that everything can be, yes, boxed. He is managed by L-Tip (Terrah Bennett Smith), whose motto is "Trend Is Life." She takes him around to see-and-be-seen parties and tries to book him on cable talk shows. L-Tip aspires to the glamour of a cartoon character named Chee Chee Kitty, "wearing outfits made of sugar stars, lapping up the limelight, dancing at the Cafe Who's Who with Country Tidbit." She also happens to be in the process of divorcing Boswell's brother Max (Gareth Williams).

Boswell is dying but trying to change his fate through his writing. He's so self-engrossed that he won't give the heartbroken Max any comfort or food. And he looks down upon housemate William (Elaine Tse), who works as a "splatterer," someone trying to clean up the grunge-encrusted creatures found floating around L.A. "God, how pathetic to live a life where every bone is a treasure," he says to her.

Boswell's ambition is to sit atop the trash heap. "Due to my remarkable intelligence," he exclaims, "I realized early on this world was not an oyster I wanted to try and swallow. Thus I went on to other things. Like maintaining an image which was a vital part of securing government subsidy. . . ."

In this world where image is king, Max finally decides to get himself "euthed," or euthanized. That would make him the first person to be euthed for love.

"Yes, it's an absurdist play," Brady admits, "but just enough so that you could still think it could actually happen."

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