What’s So Funny About AIDS? : ‘Maps for Drowners,’ billed as the first mainstream comedy about the killer disease, will open in West Hollywood

<i> Richard Stayton writes regularly about theater. </i>

Is Los Angeles ready for a comedy about AIDS?

That merciless disease that shrivels its victims into skeletons--a source of humor ? This could be a first.

That’s the claim of “Maps for Drowners,” a play having its world premiere on Thursday at West Hollywood’s Tiffany Theatre: “The first mainstream comedy about AIDS and about hope.”

“Maps” verges on farce, with elements of “The Goodbye Girl” tossed in. It concerns mostly straight couples and individuals who “accidentally” sublet a New York apartment at the same time. Who gets the sofa? Who gets the bedroom? Who gets AIDS?

But everyone associated with the production seems, at first glance, too young to balance such a delicate situation. Playwright Neil Landau is only 28. Director Allison Liddi is 31. Maura Minsky, 27, and Kristin Hahn, 22, are taking their first steps as a producing team. What gives them the right to be making jokes out of death?


All have a poignant, undeniable response: Their coming of age in the Age of AIDS. Theirs is not the 1960s Free Sex generation, or the 1970s Sexual Liberation generation or even the late-1980s Safe Sex generation. For Landau, Liddi, Minsky and Hahn, their generation’s arrival taught them that love can kill. Sexual maturity in the plague years is not going to breed many nostalgic love stories. What it breeds is fear.

“There’s a lot of paranoia and hysteria out there,” says Landau, gesturing at the street. “AIDS is the greatest fear of our generation.”

“They now say the incubation period can be up to 10 years,” Liddi adds. “It’s so frightening.”

“Everybody’s scared,” says Minsky.

Fear was the initial motivator for Landau’s research on “Maps for Drowners.”

“Being a gay man,” Landau says, “just getting up in the morning and reading the paper, it’s AIDS, AIDS, AIDS. Everybody’s dying. Every dancer in the dance world. Read the trades, read the obits: People in the creative community are dropping like flies. I was 26 and went into this real fear mode where I stopped reading the paper. If I was watching the news and AIDS was being reported, I’d turn the TV off.”

Landau took an AIDS test and was negative. But the fear remained. He decided to fight this irrational behavior. Rather than shutting out information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he would confront it.

He worked as a fund-raiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles. There he learned about the Shanti Foundation, an organization devoted to helping those suffering from an AIDS-related illness. When yet another friend died, he took Shanti’s 50-hour training course to qualify as “an emotional support volunteer.”

“The Shanti training is about confronting your fears about death,” Landau explains. “And about getting in touch with the deepest levels of compassion that you possess.”

Then Landau was assigned to a man he identifies simply as David. David had no friends or family.

“He didn’t really have anyone to be there for him,” Landau says, “and he was going through this very scary time. I helped him the best I could just by being there. The whole point of Shanti is that we’re a compassionate presence.”

In retrospect, it would be difficult to gauge who helped whom the most. Before meeting David, Landau admits, he “played it completely safe, in every aspect of life and writing.” After David, . . . well, to understand Landau’s transformation you have to examine his background. He knows now, but couldn’t have known then, that everything in his young life had come “with so much luck and so easily.”

He was a gifted, precocious writer even at age 9, when he wrote his first play, “The Litter Bugs and the Clean Up Mop,” for his Woodland Hills elementary school Clean Campus Week. In the sixth grade he adapted “The Waltons” for the school’s stage (Jim Bob got polio). At Taft High School in Woodland Hills, he won playwriting awards.

Until college, theater was his medium. But after graduation, Landau was steered toward UCLA’s motion picture/television department. His “Jewish not-so-liberal parents” warned him, “ ‘You can’t make a living in the theater. At least try to go into film and TV, where you’ll still never make a living, but there’s the potential.’ ”

At UCLA, Landau took the usual screen-writing courses. But it was in the English department that he learned invaluable lessons. Novelist Carolyn See’s fiction course taught him the do’s and don’ts of a writing career. “She’s very practical,” he says of See. “She became my mentor.”

Thanks to See’s expertise, Landau knew how to approach literary agents, publishers and magazines. She also taught him to think like a writer. “ ‘Wherever you go, whatever you do,’ ” Landau remembers her lecturing, “ ‘say you’re a writer. Write 1,000 words a day and make one phone call and send one charming note every single day. Build up those connections.’ ”

It worked. A year after graduating from UCLA, Landau and ex-classmate Tara Ison sold their first screenplay, “The Real World,” to 20th Century Fox for $250,000.

“Boom! My life changed. Things were so easy.”

He left his “security blankets”: a part-time job as an assistant travel agent that he’d depended on since high school (quitting was “terrifying”), plus his seasonal work as actor Judd Hirsch’s assistant on NBC’s “Dear John.”

Immediately, Columbia Pictures signed the pair to a development deal.

“We didn’t even know what we were writing,” he says now of the Columbia musical comedy about a Betty Ford Clinic for teen-agers. Then came another writing job, again from Fox, to write a movie about “a bunch of yuppies going on a river-rafting trip.” Neither Ison nor Landau had ever been on a raft, so Fox sent them down a river. They hated the experience, came back and wrote “an anti-river-rafting satire.”

Their age was perfect for the teen-age market the studios were targeting.

“I was very arrogant,” he says. “I’m a young person, so I could ram that down throats” of executives.

But Landau was growing older. In the bizarre world of Hollywood movie-making, Landau’s 25th birthday was a rite of passage. He got more serious about life. The “easy, safe choices” became harder to make. The script went into turn-around, its title changed to “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.” Without a production, no more checks. A spec script didn’t sell. In the midst of the Writers Guild strike, Landau became a Shanti volunteer.

“Everything fizzled,” Landau says of that period. “I ran out of money entirely. I called my parents to ask for a loan, and all they could offer was free room and board.

“So the famous screenwriter moved back to Woodland Hills into his childhood bedroom, utterly humiliated. I thought my life was over. I thought I was never going to write again.”

What Landau didn’t know at the time was that he had yet to hit bottom.

To earn money, he returned to the travel agency that three years before gave him a going-away-to-fame party. He avoided his high school and college friends. He came to depend on his Shanti colleagues. And he confided in David, whose troubles put Landau’s into perspective.

“David was very, very sick,” Landau says. “He had dementia--organic brain syndrome. When he died, even though I was expecting it and saw him decline, it was very hard on me. I went into a grieving process. I really shut off from everyone. I was crying a lot. I started writing in my journal again.”

Out of his journal writing came a letter from David. The letter wasn’t “a message from beyond the grave.” It emerged from pain. It was a way to say goodby, to mourn and to heal. But it was written in David’s words. Around the letter, in his childhood bedroom, broke and in debt, Landau found himself writing a play.

When he finished, Landau dedicated “Maps for Drowners” to David.

“It was very humbling,” he says of that period. “I’d be very obnoxious and snotty and I didn’t know how lucky I’d been. So I’m glad that all happened, even though it was the lowest point of my whole life. That’s why I’ve been so driven about getting this play done and making it perfect: It came from such a deep source. And I just want to be faithful to it now.”

Being faithful to the play meant in Landau’s case learning the territory. Never having tried to produce a play in Los Angeles, he went to Samuel French’s bookstore in Hollywood and conducted research.

“This is how remedial I was: I didn’t know the language,” Landau says. “I had to make a glossary of terms so people thought I knew what I was talking about: backer’s audition, Equity-Waiver, et cetera.”

But to follow the guidebook steps, he soon realized, meant it could take more than six months just to get rejected by theaters. He remembered his mentor See’s advice and decided to do everything on his own.

“There was some urgency to doing the play now and not waiting for query letters to be answered,” Landau explains. There were lessons that he had learned as a Shanti volunteer that he wanted made public. “I didn’t want it to be this political, preachy play. I’m a comedy writer. If I want people to hear what I have to say, I have to make them laugh first. But there’s this attitude out there that some victims of AIDS are innocent while others may deserve it. No one deserves to suffer from any life-threatening illness.”

Then began what Landau calls a period of synchronicity. Ison, his writing partner, had taken him to the award-winning production of Carol Churchill’s “Cloud 9” at West Coast Ensemble. Its director’s inventive choreography would be perfect for his play. Who directed it?

Landau stopped by the theater and asked. The director was Allison Liddi. How could he contact her? Send a letter, they suggested, in care of the theater.

But before Landau drafted the letter to Liddi, he decided to have a reading. He wanted to revise the script and increase his chances with the award-winning director. While going through the Academy Players Directory in search of actors, he saw John Cardone’s photograph and recognized the actor from “Cloud 9.” Cardone not only agreed to read for Landau, he passed the script to Liddi.

When Landau phoned to ask if she was interested, Liddi answered, “Is it together enough to show these two producers?”

While Landau had been struggling to stage “Maps for Drowners,” producers Minsky and Hahn struggled to mount Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary” at the Tiffany Theatre. Liddi was set to direct. One problem among many: The playwright’s wife suddenly demanded to be their director.

Minsky and Hahn suddenly had a space but no play.

Enter “Maps for Drowners.”

Minsky is a veteran of New York’s tough off-Broadway theater whose youth conceals a shrewd entrepreneur. Today, she is the manager of television at Hanna Barbera, where she develops and creates live-action movies for Bedrock Productions.

So why go into debt producing theater?

Minsky paraphrases a Carolyn See-ism that she learned from Landau: “Television feeds the family but theater feeds my soul.” In her spare time, Minsky joined forces with Hahn to produce “Maps for Drowners.”

Minsky and Hahn formed a limited partnership to raise production money. The budget for “Maps” is $19,000, with more than half going toward the Tiffany’s rent. Typically, few industry professionals bought one of the $1,300 shares. But See became the first to buy a share. Minsky’s cousins bought one. Liddi’s parents bought another. A friend of Landau’s who teaches second grade bought a share.

In one night, during a backer’s audition at Heliotrope, they raised $10,000.

At this level, theater rarely pays. So what inspired so many first-time investors? Landau’s script. Under Liddi’s guidance, he continuously revised.

“I’ve never worked at such a high level before,” Landau says. “This is like my master’s thesis.”

Meanwhile, Landau’s film career has resurrected itself. His movie “Don’t Tell Mom . . .” was finally released. The powerful talent agency CAA signed him. Disney commissioned Landau and his partner to write a movie called “Transylvania to Pennsylvania.” Tri-Star asked them to adapt a novel for the screen.

Most promising of all, his mentor, See, invited him to collaborate on the screenplay version of her forthcoming novel, “Making History.”

Landau believes that she chose him because of “Maps for Drowners.” Playwriting taught him a crucial lesson: “Fear of life is much greater than fear of death.”