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The therapist is in ... production

Psychologist Bob Clyman adjusts his practice to allow more time for writing and shepherding his plays.

January 06, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Therapist + patient = drama.

The equation has clicked since Sophocles, when the blind seer, Tiresias, correctly diagnosed literature's first Oedipus complex. It worked in "Spellbound" and "The Sixth Sense," "Equus" and "Ordinary People" -- and right up through "The Sopranos." But don't get Bob Clyman started on that.

For more than 20 years, Clyman has juggled careers as a playwright and a clinical psychologist. Now, for the first time, the therapeutic encounter is the focus of one of his plays as "Tranced" has its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.

The situation: A graduate student from Africa seeks out a famed hypnotherapist to treat her debilitating anxiety. Putting her under, he learns of a human rights atrocity in her impoverished homeland -- which its technocratic leader, trying to speed his nation's modernization, may be covering up. Along with the therapist, a newspaper reporter and a diplomat must decide how to deal with this apparent bombshell.

Clyman, who lives in Essex County, N.J., says his stage work is "the most elective" of his three main pursuits: the two-headed career, in which psychology is far the better-paying, and being a husband and father (he and his wife, Judy, also a psychologist, have twin sons who are 25).

"There's an assumption people can easily have: 'How serious a playwright can you be?' " Clyman said in an interview. "I remember getting a crack in one early review, 'You'd expect a psychologist to know more about people than Clyman.' "

Still, to charges of dilettantism he can offer a track record of productions and respectful reviews. And even the most monomaniacal playwright might be impressed by the action this polymath has been getting lately.

"The Secret Order," a drama about cancer researchers slogging through ethical dilemmas, had a well-received East Coast revival late last year in Boston and New York, incorporating rewrites Clyman did after the show's West Coast premiere 4 1/2 years ago at the Laguna Playhouse. Now the finished version is bouncing back to Southern California, in a Jan. 16-20 staged reading at the Skirball Cultural Center, for later radio broadcast on LA Theatre Works' nationally syndicated show, "The Play's the Thing." Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") plays the institute's director, and Ed Asner is his nemesis, a scientist with an instinct for organizational turf war -- a role Clyman beefed up in rewrites.

"Tranced," meanwhile, will have a second staging later this month at San Jose Repertory Theatre, with a different director and cast. Clyman has penciled in face time to help rehearse both productions of his new play, but he will have to skip "The Secret Order" at the Skirball because of his other career.

Clyman got the idea for "Tranced" from a friend's use of hypnotherapy with patients from Latin America who had been victims of political torture. Other elements of the story grew out of interviews he saw on "Charlie Rose" with authors who discussed dam-building in India and the history of U.S. foreign policy responses to genocide.

As he sits side-by-side with director Jessica Kubzansky at the head of a long table, facing the four actors who'll do the show in Laguna, Clyman, small and stubble-chinned, is in a doubly powerful position. The actors' job is to solve riddles of personality and vividly perform the answers. And here, sometimes grinning as they say their lines, is the Answer Man himself -- not just as the author, but as a credentialed psychological authority.

Erica Tazel, who plays the grad student, and Thomas Fiscella, as the hypnotherapist, are working on an exchange in which she slyly insults his looks.

"We could cheat and ask the actual psychologist we have here in the room," Kubzansky says. "So, Bob, would people get all hissy with you?"

"With lesser psychologists, maybe," Clyman jokes, before giving a real hint: "In a case like this, [the insult] is so clearly defensive on her part, you wouldn't struggle with it. You'd be mildly amused."

But the director wants her cast to work through other issues on their own. She vetoes Tazel's request for an instant psychological consult on how people act when they're in a trance. "We're looking for discoveries in the moment, and I don't think it's time for you to go there," Kubzansky rules.

If anything, Clyman says later, being a psychologist inclines him not to give too many answers, instead allowing actors leeway to explore their characters' possibilities. As a therapist, "I'm used to letting people express themselves, and intervening when it's the right time."

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