Terri Wagener reclines in a second-row theater seat, curling her toes around an arm rest and looking like the world's most relaxed playwright. At least she seems to be very much at home in Interact Theatre Company's Theatre Exchange. After all, Wagener is the group's resident playwright.
She certainly doesn't look like a playwright going through the last throes of rehearsals. Instead, there's the appearance about Wagener of happily living with a brood--in this case, a brood of five one-acts collectively titled "Currently Married" (which began its Interact run this week). She even refers to them as one might children--"One's 12 years old, and another is a week old"--and can instantly describe each piece's peculiarities.
"First," she says, "there's 'Last Date for Reservations.' A young couple has been thinking about getting married, and, in this nice restaurant, it's time to decide. Their alter egos also appear to speak. They're in sweats and tennis shoes, because that's what I think all alter egos wear.
" 'Marathon,' happens, naturally, during the New York Marathon, and I have both characters running for 25 minutes. She is a nice girl from Iowa; he's a guy from the Bronx. They never learn the other's name. When it's over, we need to mop up the sweat on stage, so it's intermission.
"When we come back," Wagener says, "we have 'The Psychopath and the Virgin,' the new piece, which is about an older couple who long ago were in love, never married, but he's come back to ask her (for her hand). Love and intimacy don't change as you grow older.
" 'Oh Baby Oh Baby' is set at a cocktail party, where a new father in his late 30s, and alone without his wife, swoons at the scent of baby powder on a woman in her 20s. Baby powder just does it for him, and she's smart and funny but hasn't figured out that her life has actually started.
"And," she says, "I save my only married couple of the evening--the only one we see together, that is--for the last piece, 'Tailors' Eyes.' Only I put a husband, his mistress, his wife and her lover all together."
All of which is Wagener's way of saying not to take the evening's title literally, but to look at the larger notion of the marriage of two souls at the core of the collection: "I'm very concerned about asking how you make a marriage last, how love stays, and I think it comes back to the old idea that you can't love someone else unless you love yourself."
During the 12-year period in which she wrote the material in "Currently Married," the Texas-born, "over-30" Wagener also completed several full-length plays. In tone and subject matter these range from the faded Southern splendor of "Ladies in Waiting" to issues of art and science in "The Man Who Could See Through Time" (staged in 1982 at South Coast Repertory).
At the astonishingly young age of 20, Wagener was invited to the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Playwrights' Conference and soon saw her plays produced at the Yale Rep and at Actors' Theatre of Louisville and in several New York spaces.
"My 10-year plan," she says, "was to keep a day job, write what I wanted to write at night, and write 10 plays."
This plan also included turning down offers from television and film producers "and other folks who didn't have my best interests in mind." It did not, however, include being Mikhail Baryshnikov's personal assistant for eight years, a job Wagener had during the '80s when the dance superstar took over American Ballet Theatre.
"That was a 25-hour-a-day job," says Wagener, who was also married to--and later divorced--"a very famous screenwriter."
Chance, post-Misha and post-marriage, brought Wagener to Los Angeles: "I called friends in various cities, and asked them why I should move there. The friend in L.A. had an extra bedroom, and that did it."
Wagener swears she didn't know of the city's theater industry, but soon she was attracting interest at Los Angeles Theatre Center and landed a job doing a rewrite on the screenplay of "Fried Green Tomatoes."
Being in Southern California also brought her back in touch with old New York theater pals, transplants to L.A. who were meeting and reading plays. The group was the start of Interact, which invited Wagener to be its resident playwright last year.
Interact founder Marilyn McIntyre, who urged her group to associate with Wagener "before someone else did," explains that "Terri, with acting in her background, understands actors' behavior and their need for dramatic conflict, which is important for this group. She's feminine--I'm not talking about hearts and flowers, nor about being feminist. She celebrates smart, sensual women."
Wagener, relaxing even more in her theater seat, says, "I can see in these five plays how I've grown up, gotten wiser. I was told how brilliant I was at an age when I hadn't really suffered life at all. Now I have" and then she cuts herself off with a laugh, "even though I might not look like it!"
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: "Currently Married."
Location: Interact Theatre Company at Theatre Exchange, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood.
Hours: 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Ends April 6.
Price: $12 for seniors and students; $15 general.
Call: (213) 660-8587.