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Play Is a Lesson in Life, Death

<i> T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

The road a play takes from typewriter to stage is a fairly standard route. The late William DeAcutis’ dramatic comedy “Take Away,” opening this weekend at Mojo Ensemble in Hollywood, is an exception. His best friend Brian Frank is directing the production; his lover is producing the play.

In fact, this play’s history might have been written by W. Somerset Maugham. It involves a film producer’s flight to Calcutta to seek out the mystery of Mother Teresa and his coincidental realization of the grace with which death enfolds us; the dedication of best friends and lovers; and the indomitable spirit of a young actor-writer who spent the last months of his life creating a play that tries to explain what was happening to him and why he was still full of hope.

The play, serious but with a powerful undercurrent of humor, describes the traumatic experience of a young man whose parents are dying of cancer and emphysema, and whose lover is dying of AIDS. It’s not about dying, though, but about learning how to die.

The playwright, William DeAcutis, created the role of Tommy Boatwright in Larry Kramer’s early AIDS play, “The Normal Heart,” at New York’s Public Theatre. He then moved to Hollywood and appeared in such films as “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Talk Radio,” “Men Don’t Leave,” and finally, “Other People’s Money,” whose credits dedicate the film to DeAcutis.

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A little over two years ago, DeAcutis died, one more victim of AIDS. The play received its first reading 36 hours after his death.

During DeAcutis’ last months, he began writing “Take Away,” but he kept the project to himself. He told neither his best friend, actor-director Frank, about the play, nor his lover, film producer James A. Walsh. Frank is directing this first production of the play, and Walsh is co-producing with Mojo Ensemble’s Diana DeMayo. It was, in fact, Frank who introduced Walsh and DeAcutis.

To Frank, the play was a bridge to get over Billy DeAcutis’ death. It kept him occupied.

“Billy kept saying,” Frank recalls, “ ‘You’re my best friend. I trust your judgment.’ I thought, oh, my God, what a responsibility. Billy was so brave, and there was never a moment when he was martyred or feeling sorry for himself.”

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DeAcutis’ career was on the rise at the time. So was the producing career that brought James Walsh to Los Angeles from New York under the auspices of Broadway and Hollywood producer Francine LeFrak. Everything was coming up roses for the two. Then DeAcutis tested HIV positive.

“That was about the time,” says Walsh, 29, “that Lorimar came to me and decided they wanted to put me on my own, in my own overall deal. That was because I had brought in this project, the Mother Teresa story. Her story is absolutely magical. You could sell it on the moon. So here I was, this kid, and I had my own deal, I had my lover, and we lived in a nice house. I was producing these movies; I was doing one with Goldie Hawn. Billy’s finding out about being HIV positive, and all this happened coincidentally.

“My career was taking off, but the personal challenges, the dramatics of my personal life, were beginning to become apparent to me.”

Part of this awareness began during Walsh’s stay in Calcutta, trying to get the rights to Mother Teresa’s story. “I felt she would see right through me. I was a Hollywood producer, with Lorimar, and that’s not the kind of currency she deals in.”

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His first sight of the legendary nun was when he looked up during Communion and their eyes met. Walsh started volunteering to help, and wound up in the Home for the Dying, which is Mother Teresa’s major hospice. He cut hair, giving the men “these fabulous West Hollywood haircuts, which they hated.”

Walsh was also asked by one of the nuns to carry something for her: corpses, wrapped in cloth except for their faces, to be taken to the funeral pyres.

Walsh says he’s never forgotten the face of the first corpse he carried. That vision helped him over the trauma of DeAcutis’ death. “I’d forgotten all about India,” Walsh says, “until the moment Billy died, and I watched his face. Then it all came back to me, that that was somehow a preparation for this. It was the first lesson I had in my life, and a big one about how things happen.

“I don’t think I was as afraid of death as I might have been. I knew what it was about. It really is the best example of finality and beginning at the same time. Like Christmas, the next day it’s over. After weeks and weeks of preparing for it, it’s over.”

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But Walsh had the play. It was a part of Billy DeAcutis, with his understanding and humor entwined in its story. Frank and Walsh took the play to several theaters, but they all wanted more artistic control than Frank and Walsh wanted to give up. They felt they knew how Billy wanted to see the play done. Then they found Mojo.

Co-producer DeMayo, who is Mojo’s co-producer of the play, says, “It’s about love and loss and hope. It’s not just about one issue, it’s about many issues. It’s written with lightness and comedy as well as being a drama. It has all these different flavors, which really tie in to what Mojo tries to present.”

DeMayo leans back in her chair on the set of “Take Away,” and says, “When I read the play, I laughed and cried. When I first met James and Brian, I felt that something very much of the heart was going on.”

The heart, all three agree, comes from Billy DeAcutis’ outlook on life, even at the end. Walsh explains that “Take Away” shows three very particular and very distinctive familial universes, and shows how there’s something in common between them, but still something distinctly separate.

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“Billy said,” he recalls, “ ‘We’re all different, and it isn’t fun.’ His strongest attribute was that he understood human frailty.”

“Take Away” plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays - Sundays at Mojo Ensemble, 1540 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, through April 3. Tickets: $15. Call (213) 960-1604.


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