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Playwright Engineers a Dual Life : Scientist Roger Rueff Spent Nights Penning ‘Hospitality Suite,’ Now on SCR’s Second Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You’d think anybody who gets just 4 1/2 hours of sleep a night ought to have huge bags under his eyes, maybe even pouches the size of golf balls.

Yet on a recent morning Roger Rueff looked not only rested but chipper.

“What’s really important isn’t so much getting a lot of sleep as getting it in multiples of 90 minutes,” said Rueff, whose double life as a chemical engineer by day and a playwright by night has forced him to deal creatively with sleep deprivation.

The bearded, blue-eyed, balding author of “Hospitality Suite"--which opened to favorable notices last week on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory--said he often resorts to as little as three hours of slumber when his post-midnight writing sessions are going particularly well.

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“There are medical cases of people who don’t sleep at all,” he said, sipping from a cup of cappuccino. “They’re not very common, but they exist. Marshall McLuhan used to get by regularly on 4 1/2 hours. The story on Thomas Edison is that he used to sleep in 10- or 15-minute increments.”

Not that Rueff, 35, was citing anecdotes about sleep-deprived geniuses to draw comparisons between his feats of imagination and theirs.

Indeed, in his pink T-shirt and faded jeans, he cut such a casual figure that it seemed hard to believe he was actually a disciplined scientist of any kind, much less a buttoned-down chemical engineer in the petroleum industry who has spent most of his professional life in the Midwest doing fuels-and-emissions research for the Amoco Oil Co.

“They don’t even know I write,” Rueff said of his company colleagues. “I try to keep the two worlds separate from each other. When people come to see a play of mine, as I’ve hoped they would get the opportunity to do for some time, I want it to be irrelevant what I do for a living.

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“Likewise, when I’m sitting at work all day, they shouldn’t have to care whether I write plays or not. It’s not something I feel compelled to tell them. And as long as I’m doing my job there and getting good performance reviews, why should it become an issue?”

In any case, Rueff said, he expects Amoco to discover his identity as a writer any minute now. His guess is that Amoco--"a fairly conservative company"--has a clipping service to pick up news articles with any mention of the corporate name. When it does, some executive is bound to show up at his desk asking the inevitable question, “What’s going on here?”

Besides, “Hospitality Suite"--Rueff’s first produced play--revolves around a pair of salesmen and a research scientist for a Midwest firm that manufactures industrial lubricants. A comic drama with Mamet-like overtones, it explores the conflicts among members of the marketing team, which is making elaborate preparations to snare a well-heeled customer at a typical business convention being held in a hotel in Kansas.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Rueff has made use of his personal experience at similar conventions, where he was “brought in as window dressing from the research center.”

“I’ve been in the real Room 2601 at the Holiday Inn in Wichita,” he said, “and I thought it would make an interesting setting for a play. But nothing is based on any of my relationships or any of the people I know.

“In fact, as I wrote it, the play didn’t go at all where I thought it would. Nothing happened as I originally conceived it. . . . I take that as a blessing, because it would have been a much less-interesting play if it had.”

All things being equal, Rueff said, he would choose to be a writer over a chemical engineer any time. The former is a calling, the latter a career. But it’s only in the last year or so--following readings of “Hospitality Suite” at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York--that he has acquired an agent, enabling him to entertain the realistic hope that being a dramatist might earn him some money as well.

Born in Upland, Rueff grew up in Denver and got a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1978 at the Colorado School of Mines. After three years with the Marathon Oil Co. in its Gulf Coast offshore district office in Lafayette, La., he returned to the school for a doctorate.

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“Marathon had some horrible locations for process engineers, the job I had,” Rueff recalled. “That made me a prime candidate for transfer to Ira-An, Tex. Now, the only reason Ira-An existed was because it’s in a gas field. This was circa 1981, and you had to drive 90 miles to Midland-Odessa to see a movie. Going back to school looked a lot better.”

By the mid-1980s, having received his doctorate in chemical engineering and a job at Amoco’s petroleum research division in Naperville, Ill., 30 miles outside Chicago, Rueff began to participate as an actor in a suburban community theater. At the same time he switched from writing poetry and short stories on the side to writing plays.

Although “Hospitality Suite” is his first play to reach a full production, he counts it as his fifth completed script. He also has another dozen fragments of scripts in his word processor, he said. Essentially self-taught, despite an eight-week writing course he once found useful, Rueff penned “Hospitality Suite” over three months at the end of 1989.

“When I finished it I didn’t have an agent, and I wasn’t a member of the Chicago Dramatists Workshop, where my stuff gets a first reading now,” he recalled. “It was just me doing my thing late at night in my basement in Naperville.”

Among his earlier plays, one titled “Headlong” deals with a crew on the world’s first mission to Mars. As for his first effort, he said, “I keep it in my file cabinet just to remind me that, yes, it’s there. Like most first plays, it’s an exorcism of whatever is going on inside you. Once you get past it you pray to God nobody ever reads it.”

Meanwhile, even with prospective stagings of “Hospitality Suite” at other theaters besides SCR--Victory Gardens, for one, has penciled it in as a possibility for next season--the budding playwright doesn’t plan on catching up on his sleep any time soon.

Rueff, who is married and the father of a 3-year-old son, has already begun a new play tentatively titled “So Many Words.” It’s about--what else?--a writer.

* Roger Rueff’s “Hospitality Suite” runs through May 24 on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. $22 to $31. (714) 957-4033.

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