Oliver Mayer whips out a paperback biography of Mexican muralist David Siqueiros and plunks it down on the table in a downtown eatery, next to his Cobb salad. "I'm reading this book right now which has totally politicized me," he says. "I'm 29, but I look at this guy at 29 and he'd been in the Mexican revolution, the Spanish Civil War and he was putting himself on the line for Marxism. It's really exciting, galvanizing."
Actually, Mayer's not doing so badly himself.
Back in town from New York for a few days between bouts of working on his play "Blade to the Heat"--slated to open the Public Theatre's season with previews beginning Tuesday--Mayer is running on adrenaline.
He is, after all, getting the kind of break young playwrights fantasize about. With the Public's own George C. Wolfe at the helm, the production is an auspicious New York debut for Mayer, particularly given that it's only his third production ever.
Set in the Latino boxing world of America during the 1950s, "Blade to the Heat" tackles issues of both homophobia and racism. And as far as the latter goes at least, it's a world that's not entirely foreign to Mayer. "My mother's Mexican, my father's Anglo, so I'm not a full Chicano--I don't look Chicano--but I identify with things Mexican," says Mayer, who also boxed a bit as a teen-ager.
"I'm a young person so I'm writing identity stuff: where I am, who I am," he continues. "But I'm also writing about where people stood in history."
Mayer's intent is to speak to the 1990s. "I like to think that there's a direct chain of events from the people in my play to now," he says. "The linkage of hands even with people you don't want to hold hands with is empowering. It's happening even if you're not aware of it."
Mayer grew up in the kind of Los Angeles household that you might think would spawn a playwright. His mother was an actor who attended Los Angeles City College during the 1950s--before she gave up the theater for marriage--and his father is a TV and film art director.
The arts were part of Mayer's life from an early age. "The first play I ever saw was here at the Taper," says Mayer of the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum, where he is now associate literary manager. "I heard the Philharmonic. And my Dad was really into art films."
Mayer says he was "pretty much of a knucklehead in high school. I got good grades out of negative energy because I didn't like a lot of the people who were doing well."
That didn't prevent him from applying, at his mother's behest, to Cornell. "She loved Nabokov and he taught at Cornell, so if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me," he says.
Mayer took a year away from Cornell to study at Oxford, where he nurtured an interest in theater. Then, armed with a sense of his vocation as a playwright, Mayer returned to finish out his degree at Cornell before applying to graduate drama school.
He went on to study playwriting at Columbia, under the tutelage of Howard Stein and others. "Howard Stein told me right when I joined up at Columbia that if you can't give it 10 years of apprenticeship and frustration, then you should go home," Mayer says.
After Columbia, Mayer landed a two-year internship with Jujamcyn theaters, the powerful Broadway producing organization. "I saw some of the worst musicals of all time," he says. "And then I saw Jujamcyn rise."
Near the end of that stint, Mayer cornered Taper artistic director-producer Gordon Davidson in New York. "Gordon came to town and I finagled an interview," Mayer recalls. "He blows you off but in a positive way."
As it happened though, there was soon an opening in the Taper's literary department. That position, which Mayer has held for more than five years, has given him a means of suport as he pursues a playwriting career.
"I have no desire to rise in the ranks," he says. "I just want to write plays and this bourgeois existence demands a paycheck. Also, I'm interested in new plays by people of color."
Reading other people's plays, however, hasn't always made it easy for Mayer to write his own. "For about a year and a half, I could not write," he says. "I was paralyzed. I'd already written three or four plays, so I was hawking them, changing a comma and calling it a rewrite."
He got back on track in part through participating in the Taper's Mentor Playwrights program, which calls on established writers to work with emerging talents. "I started writing again and for the past three, four years, I've written a lot," Mayer says.
Mayer's play "Joe Louis Blues," which tells the story of the former heavyweight champion's struggles with romance, racism and exploitation by handlers, was staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) in late 1992. It was only Mayer's second production, following one during his year at Oxford and numerous workshops he's had at theaters around the country.
Like "Joe Louis Blues," "Blade to the Heat" is set in the boxing world. "I used to box and I had one amateur fight," Mayer says. "My first memory is seeing my father at the TV watching fights and my grandfather loved the fights. I love boxing more than theater."
The play centers on a group of young Latinos who are wrestling with the pressures put on them by a racist environment and who are, at the same time, coming to terms with their own ethnic and sexual identities. "The characters in this play are on new ground," Mayer says.
"In 1959, if you were involved with someone not of the same ethnicity as yourself, it was big news," Mayer continues. "If you were gay--or even if you were just independent, like my mother (who) was a Mexican beatnik--it was terribly rough. In the end, I think people like that are heroes."
"Blade to the Heat" was originally solicited by the Public's literary department. "Ten days later, I got a phone call from George Wolfe and he said, 'I just read your play and I'm thinking about doing it,' " Mayer says. "Within three weeks, they said they would do it."
It's a breakthrough, all right, but Mayer wasn't without apprehension. "I was afraid when I got this opportunity," he says. "I thought George will appropriate (my work) somehow, because he's the senior artist, powerful and all of that. What I found is that the level of respect is so high that he allows us to find things we have to find without telling us what we have to do."
In particular, Mayer's been able to focus on what it is about his play that's most relevant to his own life--and, by extension, to the experience of other young Angelenos. "There's a shift that's taking place, here in Los Angeles and all around," he says.
"There's a lot of reconfiguring of who you are," says Mayer, who stresses that minorities haven't cornered the market on the search for self. "You don't have to be of color to be in that place."
* "Blade to the Heat," Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Tuesday-Nov. 27. $35. (212) 598-7150.