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3 Plays Follow Couple’s Marriage Through Various Stages Over More Than 30 Years

<i> Janice Arkatov writes frequently about theater for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

What if your husband decided to write a play about your 30-plus years of marriage for his playwriting class--and then mounted the finished product at a local theater? What if he went on to write a second tell-all installment and stage it? And then a third?

“Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but it’s never bothered me,” said Emily Mayer, producer-wife of writer Jerry Mayer, whose plays “Almost Perfect,” “Aspirin & Elephants” and the current “A Love Affair” have all been staged at the Santa Monica Playhouse. “He has a great sensitivity toward women,” she said. “He doesn’t shortchange them. And he’s always gone over everything he’s written with me beforehand.”

The trilogy could read like a handbook of the Mayers’ 38-year marriage: The first found a Jerry-like protagonist early on, chafing at marital reins and dreaming of a career away from the family construction business. A few years later, “Aspirin” turned its focus on the wife’s family, celebrating her parents’ anniversary on a cruise ship. Now, “Love Affair” looks in on the long-married couple, flashing back to their honeymoon--and forward to modern-day problems. Chris DeCarlo, co-artistic director of the 88-seat playhouse, directs a cast of five.

All three plays have been enormously successful: “Almost Perfect” bowed in 1985 and ran for 15 months before moving to New York’s Hudson Guild Theatre for five weeks. “Aspirin” made its debut in 1989 and ran two years. “Love Affair,” which opened in October, is going strong--in fact, it’ll play two shows on New Year’s Eve. “I think what happens to us happens to other people,” Emily theorized of the plays’ popularity. “People see themselves in these characters.”

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Of course, that means that Emily must see herself most of all. She deflects the invasion of privacy issue by pointing out that not everything depicted on stage is real.

“In ‘Aspirin & Elephants,’ all those things didn’t happen on ship,” she said. “It was a compilation of many years.” And unlike events in “Love Affair,” Jerry said, “We didn’t go broke--although we did lose money in an investment thing--and I didn’t get fired. We didn’t lose our house.”

Jerry--whose television writing credits include “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Facts of Life"--does admit, however, that he bears more than a passing resemblance to the male protagonist in the three plays--and that includes a lot of less-than-noble qualities.

Mayer, who has now shifted his attentions from TV writing to the stage, began developing “Almost Perfect” seven years ago in a local playwriting workshop run by Oliver Hailey. “Jerry has genuine wit--real wit--and a light touch,” Hailey said of the plays’ popularity. “He deals with things audiences want and need to hear about their own relationships. And each play has gotten richer and deeper.”

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The Mayer children, ages 31, 34 and 36, are happy with their parents’ new collaboration, although Emily said initially that they were “a little uncomfortable” with the prospect of airing the family linen--as were members of Emily’s family, who were consulted before Jerry turned the spotlight on them in “Aspirin.” For now, Jerry has no plan for more family plays, although he’s overseeing a new production of “Aspirin” at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, N.J. His next play, an as-yet untitled comedy, is strictly non-autobiographical, he said.

“What always appealed to me about Jerry was his sense of humor,” Emily said. “He had a nice way of looking at things.” The two met at a party in St. Louis in 1953, when Emily was 16 and Jerry 18. “We were from two different strata of society,” Jerry said. “She was Westwood Country Club; I call myself a mongrel.” In the subsequent years, Emily dropped out of college to marry and later settled into life in Pacific Palisades, “being a mom” and working for such political organizations as Women For.

She admitted that she initially took on the producer’s mantle with relish, but little knowledge.

“I called Laura Zucker at the (now-defunct) Back Alley and said, ‘What does a producer do?’ ” she recalled with a laugh. “She told me a producer does everything, from having the actors’ clothes when they need them to overseeing ticket sales and publicity. And it’s true. I’m still at the theater almost every night, working in the office, doing reservations, running the copier--and sewing on buttons when no on else is available.”

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