THEATER : Man Bites Hollywood : John Patrick Shanley's play 'Four Dogs and a Bone' is a riff on the tradition of playwrights-turned-screenwriters biting the celluloid hand that feeds them. He admits he's not above the behavior he is skewering

During one of John Patrick Shanley's first visits to Los Angeles, in 1985, a prominent film producer, eager to meet the young playwright, invited him to lunch. No sooner had Shanley, then 33, been seated than his host launched into a detailed description of his own rectal problems.

"He talked for five minutes about this canker, which he described as being the size of a shrimp," Shanley recalls. "Then the menus arrived."

This first--but by no means last--brush with a certain kind of Hollywood-style emotional intimacy has worked its way into Shanley's new play, "Four Dogs and a Bone," an excoriatingly funny take on the film world that recently opened to near-unanimous rave reviews at the subscription-audience Manhattan Theatre Club. The four-character production, directed by Shanley, moves to the 299-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre on Dec. 9 for an open-ended run.

In it Shanley wickedly portrays four desperately scheming characters--a producer, a screenwriter and two actresses--each with his or her own agenda for completing the movie (the bone) they are working on. The actresses each want their roles expanded; the producer wants scenes cut to prevent budget overruns. All but the writer think the film is too "arty." "The guy dies, everything falls apart, life stinks. It's an art-house picture," one of the characters says condescendingly.

Casting their mean and hungry looks at the meatless bone are the crass producer, Bradley (Tony Roberts), who hopes to use it to make a comeback; the idealistic fringe playwright, Victor (Loren Dean), whose first picture may mean a possible escape from penury; the aging ingenue, Colette (Polly Draper), who sees this next step leading either to starring roles or playing "someone's aunt with cancer." And pretty young Brenda (Mary-Louise Parker), more a "personality than an actress" and a pathological liar to boot, who is chanting--and sleeping--her way to fame.

One might be tempted to view "Four Dogs and a Bone" as the latest riff in a timeworn tradition. From Kaufman & Hart's "Once in a Lifetime" to David Mamet's "Speed-the-plow," playwrights-turned-screenwriters have gleefully bit the celluloid hand that feeds them. Certainly Shanley knows the terrain, having struggled as a marginal playwright before winning an Oscar for his screenplay of "Moonstruck" (1987) and then helming the expensive 1990 dud "Joe Versus the Volcano." But Shanley doesn't absolve himself of the behavior he is skewering.

"I certainly don't feel morally superior to these people," said the amiable writer, in a breakfast interview at a favorite Greenwich Village haunt near the apartment he shares with his wife, actress Jayne Haynes, and their two children. "I didn't sit down to write a satire. I sat down to write my own personal experience."

Looking professorial in a corduroy jacket and wire-rimmed glasses but occasionally sounding like the Bronx-bred ex-Marine that he is, Shanley added: "Very little in this play is made up out of whole cloth. (All) of what those characters say and do, I heard and saw over and over again. This is what was said to me and, in a moment of rancor, what I recalled."

Shanley says he set the play in New York rather than Los Angeles to create the insular ambience of an independent production. But no matter the setting, Shanley's narcissistic civilization still has the same gods (Steven Spielberg and screenwriter William Goldman are major name-drops), curses ("straight to video"), sacrificial rituals (sleeping with the screenwriter) and values ("Sometimes character is an obstacle to be overcome," says the producer, thoughtfully).

"The material is so juicy, that's why writers return to it again and again," says Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"). "Everything in Shanley's play is certainly recognizable to anybody who's made movies. It's not remotely bizarre."

In fact, the play has generated particular curiosity in the film community (Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford were at a recent performance), and Shanley says his agent has fielded many requests for copies of the script--less, he thinks, because of interest in a possible option than for a chance to grab a peek at the composite characters and try to figure out on whom they might be based.

"The producer should recognize himself," Shanley says. "There aren't that many producers who screwed me out of $25,000 and who also have rectal problems."

The cynical comedy is something of a departure for Shanley, who has in the past been preoccupied with issues of heroism and love, first in his plays, from "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," his breakthrough in 1984, to "Beggars in the House of Plenty," and then in his movies, from "Five Corners" to "Alive." In "Dogs," not only are those virtues not part of the lexicon, but they are actually perceived to be fatal in the context of the power struggles taking place.

"There is no love in this play, and it's freeing to admit it," Shanley says. "I'm playing keys here that I haven't used that much before. A dark angel just kept whispering into my ear and I followed her. It certainly has to do with cynicism, bitterness, irony and a kind of amusing low behavior on my own part as well as others'."

Indeed, he says, if courage figured at all in "Dogs," it was in his own willingness to appear "craven and greedy" in the guise of Victor. Though the novice screenwriter in "Dogs" is at first befuddled by the skewed morality of the filmmaking world, he is soon salivating as much as the others--artistic integrity be damned. And while Shanley says there are elements of himself in all the characters, with possibly the exception of the nubile Brenda, he admits that the audience wouldn't be far wrong if they assumed Victor was his stand-in.

"I'm not quite as disturbed as Victor," Shanley says. "I don't go around using the truth as gasoline, saying wildly inflammatory things to people I don't know very well. But I was kind of like him when I was younger, when I hadn't found a place in the world and was much more needy. I wanted to take a look at that guy, see how he developed."

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Shanley got the impetus to do just that earlier this year when a film director, working with a major star, asked him to write a screenplay. Pleased with the results, the screenwriter submitted his work not only to the director but to others in the film industry who responded with great enthusiasm. The director, however, instructed the studio to inform Shanley that the script "just didn't work." Puzzled and shocked at the reaction, the writer tried to get the studio, which owned the screenplay, to reconsider. But to no avail.

"I later discovered the director, who is a boor and a bum and shall remain nameless, wanted to write the picture himself--which he did," Shanley says. "It was business as usual, but I was arguing with and wanting things from people I shouldn't have been doing business with. Suddenly I realized that I wasn't holier-than-thou. I was a peer. I thought I should look at what was going on. It would either make me think better of them or worse of me, and it probably did a little of both."

Shanley finished the play in six days. When a friend asked him what the new play was about, he said: "I don't know. The only thing I can tell you is that whenever I sit down to write about Hollywood, two themes come up repeatedly: the animal kingdom and ancient Rome."

The animal kingdom, beginning with the title, is pervasive in the dog-eat-dog themes of the play. Ancient Rome is more oblique: "It had to do with this ancient Roman idea of the constant power struggles," Shanley says, "of the stabbings and the poisonings, of Brutus versus Julius Caesar. At the end of the story, the ground is littered with bodies. That always reminded me of Hollywood."

In fact, in one scene, the moralizing Victor, disgusted with the endless backbiting and betrayal, tells Colette that the movie business "doesn't have to be this way." "Oh, yes it does," the catty actress responds. "It has its own peculiar genius."

In order to explore that weird genius and his participation in it, Shanley returned to the theater--"the outback of the entertainment world," as the play's movie producer calls it. Despite Shanley's enormous success in Hollywood, the theater has always been home, the place where he's gone to work out the conflicts of his life. And the artistic tensions between the stage and the screen appear embodied in Shanley. He wrote his first dramas, he says, to help him come to terms with the blast-furnace emotions of his Irish American blue-collar beginnings. He wrote his first screenplay, "Five Corners," to make money.

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Born and raised in a working-class section of the Bronx, Shanley first wanted to become a poet, his earliest efforts reflecting the violent neighborhood in which he was growing up.

At age 26, however, after a stint in the Marines and an early marriage to a New York University schoolmate, he turned to playwriting. Beginning with "Welcome to the Moon," in 1982, he won critical plaudits for the Off Off Broadway productions of his work. Full of crackpot wisdom and high drama, the plays were often set in an Italian American context rather than an Irish one, and actor John Turturro became the moody reflector of the playwright. It was partly to blur their autobiographical nature and partly out of admiration.

"I grew up with Italians living next door," Shanley says. "And they had more range of expression in how they felt. The were more overtly sexual. They seemed to embody all the things I was feeling but which I couldn't find expression for in the Irish American language."

After an emotionally wrenching period, during which he divorced his wife and became a house painter and moving man to support himself, he began writing screenplays on spec. Producer-director Tony Bill picked up "Five Corners," about the return home of an unbalanced Bronx street kid after his release from prison. It starred Turturro and Jodie Foster.

But Shanley's second movie script, about an eccentric and romantically passionate Italian family, reached the screens first. Norman Jewison's production of "Moonstruck" gave him a dazzling calling card in Hollywood.

"The biggest insight I got out of the whole thing," Shanley says with a laugh, "is: 'Boy, it's really easy to win.' There's really no big toil involved. I kissed Audrey Hepburn, was embraced by Gregory Peck and handed an Oscar. I thought, 'This is a good day.' "

Predictably, the 1987 hit brought him a lot of work. In 1988 Shanley had his agent submit his script of "Joe Versus the Volcano" to Steven Spielberg, which led to a five-year collaboration that would include the chance to make his directorial debut with "Joe" as a $25-million feature starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The latest project is the animated movie "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story," which opens Wednesday. Shanley's script is an adaptation of Hudson Talbott's children's book of the same name about time travel, New York City, friendship and, of course, prehistoric pets.

But even before the release of "Joe," Shanley deliberately made a point of continuing to work in the theater. In 1988, he came back to the Manhattan Theatre Club--which had produced his early work and where he had once been a stage manager--with "Italian American Reconciliation." By then he had remarried, to actress Haynes, whom he had met when she was cast in his play "Savage in Limbo," and his career and personal life appeared to be on a steady hum. His homecoming, however, was somewhat strained--tensions that grew greater after he directed "Joe Versus the Volcano."

"The theatrical community, the playwrights and actors, were all treating me rather strangely, as though they didn't know what to make of me," he recalls. "They did not consider me one of their own anymore. It was all too much for them, working with Spielberg, directing, the Oscar. I really had to spend two years reintroducing myself to my peers and gaining acceptance as being my own person."

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Shanley did so by joining a playwriting group at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and faithfully attending the weekly meetings, nurturing the work of his fellows, something that he continues to do.

"John has always been most encouraging of other people's work," said Lynne Meadows, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club. "Even while he was busy putting on his own play here, he found time to see the production I was directing, 'Loman Family Picnic,' and spent hours talking about it with me. He has a very generous spirit."

Shanley says the need to re-establish his place within the theatrical community simply stemmed from his Bronx street-corner beginnings, with its emphasis on a society of fellows to hang with. "What do I do if I have a bad day?" he says. "What if I write a play and it gets bad reviews and I'm emotionally distraught? I had better be there for other people or they're not going to be there for me."

Shanley needed that support after the critical and commercial debacles, first of the films "January Man" and "Joe Versus the Volcano" and then his play "The Big Funk" at the Public Theatre. Coming as they did at the end of an intensive period of work, the writer teetered on the brink of a nervous exhaustion.

"It felt like I was waking up each day by somebody throwing a radio into the bath of water I was in," he recalled.

Shanley decided to regroup away from professional pressures by taking as his office a two-bedroom apartment in a remote Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn. For the 18 or so months he had the apartment, he kept the walls bare and the rooms entirely free of furniture.

"I just walked from room to room," he says, "thinking about my life, trying to make some sense of it."

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Shanley's current office at the Film Center building in mid-town Manhattan is warm and inviting, dominated by an overstuffed couch and a huge oak desk littered with books and papers. On one wall is a poster for "Alive." "Disney being Disney," he says, "that came not only framed, but also with a nail and peg on which to hang it."

On the opposite wall is a colorful Ethiopian painting of St. George and the dragon. The picture seems to be a graphic representation of the battle Shanley himself has been waging between his artistic ideals and the pragmatism and compromise demanded by the collaborative nature of making movies. As much as he scorns that process in "Four Dogs and a Bone," he is aware of those demands and seeks to meet them. In this regard, he says his best teacher has been Spielberg:

"We're very different, but we had a basic respect for each other. Sometimes, he'd become uneasy with his role and sometimes I'd become uneasy, but it didn't destroy our relationship and we never thought we hadn't given it our best shot, out of deference for each other."

It was Spielberg, after all, who came to Shanley's rescue when Warner Bros. executives were becoming extremely restive over their $25-million investment in "Joe Versus the Volcano."

"It was my first time directing," Shanley says, "and they kept coming up to Steve and asking, 'Does this guy know what he's doing?' I put together a reel of the first 45 minutes, and after seeing it Spielberg told them, 'Lay off the guy. He's doing fine.' "

Shanley says he didn't regret the creative risks he took on his first film, saying that recently he had received a call from a Warner Bros. executive telling him that "Joe" has actually started to turn a profit. "I think I'd rather take risks and fail than not take risks and still fail."

"Four Dogs" is less a judgment on the film world than his way of trying to sort through "a lot of information and some funny characters" he has encountered during his tenure as a screenwriter. He has found their behavior not so much despicable as astonishing. While the moral lassitude can be infectious, he says he was lucky in that his invitation to moral ruin came late in his life. He was mature enough to avoid its temptations. At least most of them.

"This isn't so much a morality tale as an expiation," he says. "I think I was starting to get too solemn about the whole thing, all too eager to see anybody else's buffoonery but not my own. Sure, there's a lot of anger in this play. But I have a lot of affection for these characters. I can hardly wait to see what they'll do next."

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