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Of a murder and 'Mayhem'

Mining the horror of the killing she witnessed, the playwright explores a marriage and the global unrest that tears at it.

March 16, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Lots of emotional weather, both sunny and harsh, has been breaking out at the Evidence Room during the run-up to Saturday's world premiere of "Mayhem," Kelly Stuart's drama about the weight of global politics landing on one very unhappy Los Angeles couple. And that's not counting what happens in the play itself.

On the afternoon of Valentine's Day, Stuart sat in the front row, facing the actors on stage, and recounted for them, through sobs and tears, what it was like to see a life blown away in an unprovoked volley of bullets, then have to testify about it in court.

A few hours later, the bloom of love's happiness unfurled in the small, tender kisses a woman planted on a man's temple, and in the gift of a single, dusky-orange rose he brought her to mark the day.

The sweethearts are Megan Mullally, the Emmy-winning sitcom star who plays Karen Walker, the shrill, dizzy sidekick on "Will & Grace," and her fiance, Nick Offerman. The parental love they lavish on their "baby," Willa the miniature poodle, adds a further touch of happy domesticity. The quiet little dog had its arthritic right hip replaced several weeks into rehearsals, so Mullally brings her to the theater each day in a gray plastic carrying case.

The couple's moments of real-life endearment contrast with the misery they enact each time director Bart DeLorenzo runs them through a scene. Mullally plays Susan, a novice writer of children's books who is emerging toward political consciousness; Offerman is David, formerly a heroin-addicted punk rocker, now a drug counselor who spits endless sarcasm into the void that has opened in their marriage.

The play's chief aim, as Stuart and DeLorenzo see it, is to examine how the fires of global upheaval throw off sparks that can set American kitchens and bedrooms smoldering with anxiety. It asks what our personal responsibility is when history is breaking out around us.

"I don't know of any conversation I've had the past two months that hasn't had politics in it and hasn't had the metaphor of Germany in the 1930s brought up," DeLorenzo says. " 'Is something happening, and am I ignoring it? Will we look back on this historical moment and say, "My God, how stupid were we?" ' I think that's what gnaws at people and influences their relationships and how they react to the people around them."

Journalists as scapegoats

"Mayhem" began germinating, for Stuart, one day in the spring of 2000 at a New York City conference called "Art and Genocide."

She had been writing plays since she was a San Fernando Valley teenager. Now, at 41, she has 13 or 14 mature scripts that she's willing to stand behind -- including "Homewrecker," a satire on President George W. Bush that recently had a workshop production in Berlin. Stuart's most widely seen work, "Demonology," was staged at the Mark Taper Forum in 1997. It blends politics and supernatural fantasy in its portrayal of an executive at an infant-formula company who develops a crazed thirst for his lactating secretary's breast milk -- apparently out of guilt over his firm's scandalous dumping of its products in the Third World.

At the art and genocide conference, Stuart listened while an audience attacked the panelists -- war correspondents and photographers who had covered horrors in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans -- for behaving as observers rather than as moral agents. She saw the journalists as scapegoats -- bearers of bad tidings who were being lambasted because their audience felt angry and powerless in the face of the news they brought.

Her theme began to take shape: How do people talk about politics? What motivates them to leap from talk into action? Back in L.A. that summer, she went to protest rallies outside the Democratic National Convention, armed with a notebook.

From those experiences came much of the matter of "Mayhem." A foreign correspondent, Wesley, comes to L.A. during the summer of 2000 for a conference on art and genocide -- a stateside pit stop between tours of duty covering the Taliban in Afghanistan. Attending is Susan; they have an affair. Her need to become politically involved brings her to the DNC protests, where she takes her own first steps as a war correspondent of sorts, photographing the police as they violently break up a demonstration (Stuart says she witnessed a similar scene herself outside Staples Center).

Stuart says that another crucial strand in the play crept in without any conscious intention on her part: the mayhem she and her husband, dramatist Robert Glaudini, beheld one night in 1996. The two playwrights watched, listened and cowered as the gangbangers downstairs from their Echo Park apartment shot an innocent bystander during a turf battle. The man, a middle-age working guy who had nothing to do with gangs, pulled into a gas station across the street, and a teenage gunman's automatic weapon sent his life oozing into his wife's lap.

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