The Tough, Tender World of Playwright Meyer

Times Staff Writer

Marlane Meyer looks too hip and stylish to be part of the shadowy world of porn queens and gay hustlers, hit men and small-time thieves chronicled in her first two plays.

She seems even less a survivor of the twilit back streets of Las Vegas, the site of her new drama, “The Geography of Luck,” opening tonight at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It revolves around a former rockabilly star paroled from his penitentiary sentence after killing his wife.

“I don’t write with my own blood,” she says. “I write with other people’s blood.” She pauses a beat. “The blood of virgins is usually what I use.”


The playwright is wearing a black double-breasted leather jacket, black jeans, black shoes and black sunglasses. Blackest of all, her hair is cut short on top and swept back at the sides. She takes out a bottle of cherry-red cough syrup and sets it on the table. Then she orders a cup of hot tea and apologizes for a wracking cough.

“I’m a great person for sitting in a bar and talking to anybody who shows up,” she says. “I was always good at that, even as a kid. I don’t know if it was the ‘50s or what it was, but my parents used to go to bars and bring me along. I used to do my homework in bars. And people would sit down and talk to me. They’d tell me their stories.

“I had tough parents. They weren’t tough on me. They were just full of emotional energy. They were life-aholics. Hungry for experience. It was great to be in the wake of that because it makes you a natural voyeur. You’re always watching people engaged in this life-and-death struggle, which is perfect if you’re going to be a writer.”

In “Etta Jenks” and “Kingfish,” Meyer dug below the surface of contemporary life to a bedrock of desperate alienation. Now, in “The Geography of Luck,” she has created what Nelson Algren once termed a “neon wilderness” of sorrow laced with black humor and bitter dreams.

“People on the fringe were always interesting to me,” she says. “They’ll tell you things about themselves. People in the mainstream won’t tell you anything. They know things and they have secrets. But they won’t tell you. Who knows why? Fringe types will tell you everything they ever thought, every mistake they ever made. And they’ll offer it up to you as a gift.”

The 38-year-old playwright had written about a dozen plays before her breakthrough with “Etta Jenks,” which opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in January, 1988, after winning the Joseph Kesselring Award in a national competition the previous year.

She says some of her earlier works had been “produced around” at the Found Theatre, in the utility room of the Uprising Bookstore at Cal State Long Beach, where she went to school, and in various workshops in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been writing since I was 23,” Meyer says, sipping on the hot tea. “But I guess it wasn’t until four years ago that I finally felt like I was starting to gain some muscle and control.”

Her success hasn’t relieved the pain of the personal traumas that have come her way lately. “It’s been rough,” says Meyer, citing her mother’s death last year and a divorce. “That makes two of the five most stressful things that can happen to you. An abortion must be next.”

Meyer’s sly sense of humor, which is also apparent throughout her plays, belies any suggestion of the psychological frailty that she claims. Indeed, her background would seem to confirm a temperamental sturdiness influenced by an unusual combination of factors, including her parents’ interracial marriage and a spinal tumor that prompted several operations and kept her in and out of plaster body casts for the first 12 years of her life.

Illness not only taught her the virtues of solitude so useful to a writer, but helped shape a dual aspect of her creativity. “Being a sick kid makes you very vulnerable,” Meyer says. “I was always an object of ridicule in that body cast. I think you develop sensitivity and strength from that.”

Born in San Francisco and raised in San Pedro, Meyer calls herself Polynesian and says her extraction is Hawaiian and American Indian on her father’s side and Swedish and German on her mother’s side. She is the eldest of five children.

“My dad was in the merchant marine and we always had to live by a harbor. He’s dark and my mother was light. I used to think of them as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. They were great parents for me.”

Still, “there was usually a space between what they wanted to have happen and what actually happened,” she says. “They couldn’t connect the dots.”

Meyer recently moved from Los Angeles to New York, and now lives at the southern tip of Manhattan.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s easier for me to date in New York, number one. And I like the way New York looks. I get so much energy off of having something to look at. I always felt there was nothing to look at in Los Angeles. I love tight, vertical cities. I love the compression of having 5 million people in one block.”

Is there anything about her hometown that she misses? Meyer pauses to think, then smiles.

“The daydreaming. You know how you spend hours in your car listening to the radio and just staring out the window? The drive time gave me an opportunity to daydream. That’s what I really miss.

“You need to stare out the window because what you’re really looking at is something in your head, something in your heart. That’s where those ideas for plays come from, those inarticulate moments when nothing is happening.”