The playwright folded his hands, leaned across a table and fixed his eyes on the stranger who had come to interview him.
"I repeat, there is nothing personal in the play," he says to her.
An actress, overhearing his conversation, giggles.
"Stop laughing!" he snaps into the phone.
Playwright Michael Mitnick is on a conference call with actress Mamie Gummer, and they're talking about his play "The Siegel," a twist on modern love and marriage that's making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory until April 23.
The story follows a lovesick Ethan who plans to ask Alice's parents for permission to marry her, but there's one caveat: Ethan and Alice broke up two years ago.
Alice, reeling from having worked for a failed political candidate, is seeing someone else, but Ethan remains undaunted. His journey becomes a comedy about uncertain times and the need to go back in order to move forward.
"It's an unconventional love story," said Gummer, speaking from Los Angeles. She is making her South Coast Repertory debut as Alice and is in the upcoming film "An Actor Prepares," opposite Jeremy Irons and Jack Houston. "All of us think about our past and wonder, 'What would've happened?' "
"The Siegel," a word play on "The Seagull," by Russian dramatist Anton Chekov, is part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, the theater's annual showcase of new plays.
Mitnick, an alum of Harvard and the Yale School of Drama, began writing "The Siegel" three years ago in his and friends' Brooklyn home basements.
He wanted to write something funny and knew he was onto something when the plot and dialogue would make him and his three best friends laugh. His circle of friends include a fellow playwright, a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and a writer for the TV comedy series "Transparent."
"I like writing comedies and the scenario to me is more comic than tragic," said Mitnick, who co-wrote the movie "The Giver" and HBO's "Vinyl." "Ethan is a fool."
Ethan is played by Ben Feldman, who earned an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series category for his role in "Mad Men." He currently appears in NBC's "Superstore."
"I gravitate toward nerdy child-men," Feldman said with a laugh. "He's really an intellectual, but I feel like there's a certain amount of maturity that stopped, so I can relate to that."
Mitnick said that once the play started to solidify, he thought about who would play the lead roles for the world premiere.
He was a long admirer of Feldman and Gummer and felt fortunate to have gotten both to sign on.
Gummer said she was eager to bring the script to life since it explores the intersection between reality and fantasy and the choices people make.
"It's compelling because this man is engineering his own reality and constructing this unrelenting pursuit," Gummer said.
"And so many handsome men fight over my hand," she added with a laugh.
Feldman, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, said he appreciates discussing character development and suggesting changes to the play as needed.
And, he said, it's a dream to work with the play's director, Casey Stangl, and actors Gummer, Amy Aquino, Matthew Arkin, Devon Sovari and Dominique Worsely.
"We've all been talking about the concept of time in relation to love," Feldman says. "It's very much about where you are in life and how things change."
And how do you know when to let go?
"That's why we do plays," he said. "We're trying to figure it out."
If You Go
What: "The Siegel"
When: Until April 23
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $22
Information: (714) 708-5555 or visit scr.org.