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Use all new type : ‘Stopping the Desert’ Explores Struggle Against Larger-Than-Life Forces

<i> Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Calendar</i>

“I became a vegetarian because I wanted to live to see my plays on Broadway,” declared Glen Merzer. The statement reflects both the strive-for-a-better-world (and a better self) social consciousness of the 1960s and ‘70s--and the more prevalent go-for-it success motto of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Not surprisingly, the two sentiments also coexist in Merzer’s play “Stopping the Desert” running at the Victory Theatre in Burbank.

Set in San Francisco between 1973 and 1984, the story traces the life, loves and finances of hippie-turned-entrepreneur Rick, whose relationships and career are played out in the shadows of, respectively, the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations.

“I wanted to frame the play in each of its historical periods,” Merzer noted of the tableaux that signal each presidential era. “I feel that each president had an effect on the atmosphere of the country. So I use it as a functional device to let the audience know where we are in time--and give a sense, too, of the spirit of the time. In the age of Nixon, Rick is coming out of a hippie existence, experimenting with drugs. During Ford, his business becomes a success. The age of Carter includes historical events, like the revolution in Nicaragua.”

Merzer found his original inspiration in the story of a young entrepreneur (“I’d rather not say his name”) who was offered the reins of a multinational corporation. “He had to decide whether or not the position would accord with his values,” the writer said. “I also wanted to explore the idea of how someone affects other people’s lives, and created a story where Rick has an enormous effect on the lives of everyone around him--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.”

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Although the story and situations are fictional, the models for the characters were not.

“Except for Rick, the characters in the play are all people I know,” said Merzer, who jokes that his 17-year vegetarianism has rendered him “biologically about 14 years old.” The title of the play, he added, “refers to the idea of struggling against extreme forces: struggling against the expanding of the Sahara--literally--and struggling against forces in the economy that are extremely powerful and pernicious, struggling against a lack of feelings in one’s own life.”

Given that the play is about characters coming of age in the ‘70s, Merzer has been gratified to see a broad range of age groups at the Victory. “My ideal style of theater is populist,” he said. “Theater for the people. Theater that’s entertaining, fun, that appeals to a broad range. I’m not an elitist. I don’t believe in theater only a few people can understand and appreciate. Rick is also a populist. In the beginning, he can’t make a living; although he becomes successful later, he’s not into materialism.”

“Stopping” is Merzer’s seventh of 10 plays; the latest three are a trilogy, “The Importance of Being Hemingway,” “Manhattan Hurts” and “Bad Press"--which he hopes will someday be presented in repertory. “The first one is an ‘industry play’ about actors, writers and directors,” he said. “An actor named Gene is abused in the theater world, gives up being an actor and moves to New York, where he works in the publishing field and gets abused in that. In the third play, he works at a new magazine and gets abused there, too.”

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Merzer’s own career path follows a somewhat unconventional course. Raised in Long Island, N.Y., he attended Florida’s New College, which he fondly describes as “a hippy-dippy school for bright eccentrics. There were no grades, no course requirements, no tests. There were classes, but you weren’t allowed to wear shoes to them.” Next came a 1 1/2-year stint in San Francisco doing stand-up comedy. “I have no talent for doing impressions or funny faces or voices,” he allowed. “Although I was achieving a certain amount of success, I found I didn’t like the life.”

While working toward his MFA at Indiana University (he quit before graduating), Merzer’s first full-length play, “The Cashier,” won the American College Theatre Festival’s National Student Playwriting Award and was presented at the Kennedy Center. A few years later, he won the Embassy National Playwriting Award for “Amorphous George”; it too was staged at the Kennedy. In between came a creative writing program at Boston University and a sojourn in France, where “I lived in French during the day, then wrote at night--and came to the language fresh.”

Although Merzer has found a happy home at the Victory (his “Amorphous George” will be next up in its season), to this point, major success has eluded him.

“I can’t say I haven’t gone through frustrating periods,” he admitted. “But looking back, I’ve done some of my best writing when nothing was going on in my career. So I try to look at it from a positive perspective: When you’re not getting a break, it’s a good time to write--or go to France. But I’ve also found it’s a lot easier to get a play on the boards and get attention in L.A. This play was done in New York and got some reviews, but the New York Times didn’t come. Small theater is so alive here--which is good for actors, and certainly good for playwrights.”

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“Stopping the Desert” plays indefinitely at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays at the Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank. Tickets: $15-$17. (818) 841-5421.


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