Most works of art begin with a poetic image in the mind of the artist, which he or she subsequently teases into being. For David Willinger, "Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends" began with a visit one day to his sister, who lives in a mental home in upstate New York.

"I watched her and her boyfriends playing," he said. "I looked at how they were dressed playing ball. It hit me then that the three of them would make a wonderful play.

"I'd done enough collaborating before to know that I could come up with something.

"I also knew that I wanted to get to the root of my pain."

The pain Willinger refers to is a reaction to life with his sister, the eponymous Andrea who was born retarded 30 years ago. "Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends" is a literal depiction, a theatrical documentary, on Andrea and her pals Richie and Freddie, and shows how they act and what they say. It played in New York three years ago at Willinger's own theater, The Hartley House, then moved to La Mama. The West Coast version opened in January at the Burbage, and has proved so popular that it recently moved to the Eagle Theater on Robertson Boulevard for an open-ended run.

At 33, Willinger has dark hair, the faintly lugubrious pallor common to New Yorkers in the winter and high cheek bones that give his face a faintly ethereal cast, like that of Jacques d'Amboise ("The face maybe," he quipped, "but not the body").

"It took a long time for me to be able to face Andrea," he confessed during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "When my parents put her away, they forgot about her. I did too, until a girlfriend said to me, 'You have a sister and don't see her?' So, I began to see her again. In art, everything that's a torment becomes a source of creation. I became fascinated with getting to know her again."

To have a retarded member of the family is tough enough under any circumstances. What made Andrea's plight particularly sore was that she was born into a family of overachievers.

"My father was a psychiatrist of the old school," Willinger said. "He's not immune to irrational guilt and horror over Andrea, and he's very proud. He thinks, for himself, that going to a therapist is a matter of shame.

"My mother, who was already an angry person, went into a perpetual state of outrage. Andrea stayed home until she was 15. My parents were ambivalent about her, and my brother and I felt the pressure of having to entertain her all the time. It became a terrible burden for all of us. My brother has since become a pediatrician. I think, for him, treating children echoes having treated her. But no one knows the causes of retardation. He tells me there are hundreds of causes.

"I was a mediocre student as a kid. My parents put a high premium on IQ rather than human values. Their kids had to be bright enough to skip grades, so I skipped sixth and seventh grades, and wound up not being good at anything. The only thing I seemed good at was acting class."

Willinger pursued acting through Lehman College in the Bronx, and after making the post-graduate rounds and deciding he wasn't good enough, went into directing.

"I directed mostly at the Hartley House, and did Strindberg, Brecht, Turgenev, a lot of Ghelderode. I started doing collaborative work. I did one work, 'Tiresias and the Idiot,' where a metaphysical idiot meets the seer Tiresias. The point of it all was that the idiot was already powerful; with all her seeming flaws, she is where she is, alive. I guess that was a forerunner to understanding Andrea."

Other collaborative pieces included "Secrets of Successful Running," with Barbara Hughes, and a piece based on a George Segal sculpture called "Blue Woman on Black Bed."

"I enjoy experimenting with form, and giving artistic expression to the rhythm of existence. I'm not interested in classical form, which is about climax and denouement. It was seeing Spaulding Gray, who did a piece about his mother's suicide, that gave me the courage to try 'Andrea.'

"I saw it wasn't necessary to use disguise for what I seem to be doing more and more, theatrical biography. When I auditioned actors for 'Andrea,' I had no script. Most of the people who came couldn't handle it. But I found three exceptional people. We all went up to the home to visit her; then we put it together. I did a lot of cutting and pasting, and laying pages out on the floor. But once we got started, it came together quickly.

"I think people are responding to the story because it's not as much about retardation as it is about the human condition. With retarded people, we see uncovered what we all have to struggle with daily in terms of getting through, getting our needs met, gaining approval and recognition without being clobbered."

The real Andrea, with Richie and Freddie in tow, saw the La Mama production. "Richie and Freddie liked it, but Andrea was outraged," Willinger said. "She thought the actors had taken everything she owned, including her name, her family, even her boyfriends. She didn't get the distinction that it was theater. But she eventually calmed down after Deborah Zane, who played her, got her a cake."

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