A Tale of Love and Violence : 'Dirty Mustard' tells the story of a man and a woman trapped in a destructive, abusive relationship.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

When Gina Wendkos finished writing "Dirty Mustard" a few months ago, there was no O.J. Simpson murder case. Domestic abuse was not a hot topic. But suddenly, her story about a man and woman locked in a destructive, violent relationship has become very timely.

"The characters are two misfits who find each other against all odds in a bar--and they're both completely hellbent on destruction," explains the playwright, whose work had its world premiere this week at the Alliance Repertory Theatre. "It's the typical push-pull rhythm of a romance: He pursues her; she resists. Then she falls in love with him, he kicks her out. Then after he kicks her out, he wants her back."

Each of them comes to the relationship with a fair amount of emotional baggage. "She's a character who's bitter and negative and fearful and self-mocking," Wendkos says. "He doesn't take anybody or anything seriously, and he toys with her affections. Neither one of them has a big belief in love. Yet he falls in love with her, he's drawn to her. That's why he punches her--'cause he wants to destroy her. Because being in love with her weakens him."

Actress Suzan Fellman, who aggressively pursued Wendkos to get the rights to the play, describes the work as "a beautiful love story--but it is hard, street. Nothing is padded." She describes her character Jamie as "a child that's never grown up, a lost soul. The only person with her in the world is this man. They love like hell and fight like hell; they don't know any middle ground. They're like two little brats. But their demons are quite yummy."

Although the characters are fictional, the playwright acknowledges that she has experienced an emotionally abusive relationship. "I think people should talk about it," says Wendkos, who has been a writer-producer at TriStar Television since 1991. "I was so embarrassed by it that I wouldn't admit it to anybody. It was like, 'Wait a minute, I'm this tough New Yorker, it can't happen to me.' And then it happened to me--and it happened to me by a guy who was so insignificant, such a little worm."

At the time, Wendkos sought therapy--where, incredibly, she said, she was made to feel that she was blowing her boyfriend's violence out of proportion. In spite of that experience, she wishes therapy were more available to other women suffering domestic abuse.

"The average woman can't afford it," she says. "The average hausfrau in Michigan with six kids is too busy dealing. I'm thinking to myself, 'Here I am: I'm single, with money, with a future'--and I couldn't find myself out of it. Women get killed 'cause the system doesn't support them. This whole O.J. thing is so traumatic for me because it's an echo."

Born in Italy and raised in New York, Wendkos arrived in Los Angeles in 1987, where she made a splash on the theater circuit with "Boys and Girls / Men and Women" and "Personality," quickly followed by "Dinosaurs" and "Ginger Ale Afternoon"--the latter she also wrote as a film. Her next film, "The Tiger Within," starring Max Von Sydow in the relationship story of a Holocaust survivor and a teen-age skinhead, begins production this fall with director Robert Greenwald.

Happily engaged now to Universal Pictures marketing chief Perry Katz, Wendkos believes that "Dirty Mustard" airs a lot of dirty laundry: "This play is truly scary, because it says things about love you don't want to think about. I'm even afraid to have my boyfriend see it, because I don't want him to be grossed out." She sighs. "I don't believe I'm the only person to ever experience the sadness of romance. I think romance can be a sad business. You try and glean the joy from it that you can, but if you enter into it with any honesty or vulnerability, you better have a good relationship with God."

Where and When

What: "Dirty Mustard."

Location: Alliance Repertory Theatre, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ends Aug. 3.

Price: $12.

Call: (818) 566-7935.

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