Relationship comedies can tend to look like cookie-cutter clones. What can make a difference is a new take on the subject, an unusual event, a clever reversal in the role-playing of the partners, a skewed look at the normal.
Playwright David Paterson builds the new "Finger Painting in a Murphy Bed," which gets its first production beginning Saturday at the Grove Theater Center's Gem Theatre, on a character who stands beside the romantic couple. The play is about responsibility and commitment to a situation that could prevent the heroine's entrance into the first relationship she's considered for a long time.
Myra Smuldanski is a Manhattan temp worker who has dedicated her life to raising her dysfunctional younger brother Ludlow, who, in his mid-20s, is still unable to survive alone in the outside world. At one of her job assignments she meets Reggie, a gentleman who just might be Mr. Right. But what about Ludlow?
Paterson said he long considered Myra to be the central figure in the play, which he began writing in the late '80s on the verge of his own marriage. In the play, Ludlow and Myra both attempt to jeopardize Myra's chances with Reggie. Paterson recalled that he played the same game.
"Sometimes," he said, "when people find themselves falling in love, they tend to look for the easiest way out. I tried to jeopardize my own relationship 14 hundred thousand different ways. Looking back on it, it's obvious what I was doing. This was new territory I'd never gone into before. Since I'm an artist, I'm completely self-centered. I didn't understand why I was spending so much time with this woman and why I needed her around."
In the play, Myra realizes that, with her commitment to her brother, she is not sure she can bring another person into their world. The problem she has to solve with Reggie is a reflection of the one Paterson had to solve before his marriage.
The play's statement, Paterson said, is that it's never too late for love and commitment: If people give each other time, maybe they can discover something wonderful. Paterson's point is that relationships are two-way streets.
Since he finished the original script in 1989, "Finger Painting" has been revised several times. Various versions have been given readings as Paterson and director Kevin Cochran, artistic director of the Grove, have struggled through the development process.
After listening to auditors at those readings, Paterson began to realize that Ludlow, not Myra, is actually the central figure. Ludlow's Puckish personality has become the axis around which Myra and Reggie begin to work out their burgeoning affair.
Cochran and Paterson met when Cochran was directing a workshop production at New York's Lincoln Center. The project was a musical adaptation of "Bridge to Terabithia," the children's classic by Katherine Paterson, David Paterson's mother.
The relationship between playwright and director has been profitable for both, Paterson and Cochran said. "Now, of course, I don't really want to trust any other director in the world, because I've been spoiled," Paterson said. "I trust his eye, and I trust his ear."
Said Cochran: "In the beginning, David really knew the characters. Then it gets to the point where I actually know the characters best, because I'm looking at them with a fresh eye.
"Now we're at the point where the actors know the characters best because they're concentrating on only one person," Cochran said. "And now we're finding most of our questions are going back to the actors. That's where the small, last-minute rewrites are coming from."
Paterson said he doesn't think of himself as a "cerebral writer," but as an entertainer.
"This play's not a cure for cancer," he said with a laugh. "I'm not trying to give some deep-seated message. I just want people to enjoy themselves. I hope that's not a horrific thing, but I want them to come for two hours and really enjoy meeting the people in the play."
* The Grove Theater Center's production of David Paterson's "Finger Painting in a Murphy Bed" opens Saturday at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. Performances continue Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; 3 p.m. matinee on April 1. Through April 9. $18.50-$24.50. (714) 741-9550.