‘I ‘ve lived all over the country,” notes Lynn Siefert, “and the people I’ve encountered are a lot crazier than the people I write about.” That’s no mean feat. In her 1987 play, “Little Egypt” (currently running at the Met Theatre in Hollywood), Siefert’s characters are a truly misbegotten, dysfunctional, nutty--and original--lot. “I usually start with an image,” says the Sherman Oaks-based playwright. “In this case, it was a Vietnam vet that I met: [someone] sweet, warm, open and giving beyond belief.”
The theatrical result was Victor, an emotionally scarred security guard who finds tentative love with brainy waitress Celeste--much to the displeasure of Victor’s abusive, perpetually unemployed roommate Watson. “I have equally large interest in all the characters,” Siefert stresses, “but it is really Victor’s story. He changes the most; he gets something he deserves.” Director Lisa James agrees: “The play is a love story, but mostly it’s about Victor, who’s damaged and finds his esteem, reclaims his life, gets the girl.”
The piece, which blithely zigzags from offbeat humor to punch-in-your-gut pathos, stars Jenny O’Hara as Faye, the stoic, semi-alcoholic mother of starry-eyed Celeste (Valerie Mahaffey) and tough-talking, romantically impulsive Bernadette (Elizabeth Ruscio). Guy Boyd plays Faye’s woebegone suitor Hugh, Gregg Henry is the manipulative Watson and John C. Reilly is Victor.
Director James--whose previous L.A. theater credits include the well-received “Heartstopper,” “Better Days” and “Palladium Is Moving” (which she’ll direct for her film debut next spring)--was instantly attracted to Siefert’s writing.
“It’s very delicate and funny, very lyrical,” says James. “I’d been looking for a play [to do], and this was the first one I’d read in a long time that had an original voice. It didn’t sound like anyone else. What I thought I could contribute was a tone, a way to connect all those scenes--there are 30 of them--and create a beautiful flow with concept and music, to frame the play in a certain style.”
Siefert, 47, who began writing poetry and short stories as a child in Ohio, originally headed off to college as a French major, but subsequently “did things in a different way,” attending schools in Ohio, Colorado and Maine before receiving her undergraduate degree in art (in just 12 short years), followed by another three years to get her master’s in playwriting at Yale. “I put myself through college,” Siefert explains of her extended educational path. “I was also a helluva waitress.”
Her first play was a radio drama for children called “Harold and the Clockpeople.” Her “Coyote Ugly” was premiered at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, which later commissioned the play that would become “Little Egypt.” “They’re so fearless, so out there,” Siefert says admiringly of the company. “I knew I could write something totally wacky and they’d be up to the task.”
From the Steppenwolf connection came a friendship with actress Laurie Metcalf, who introduced Siefert to her boss, Rose anne. This past summer, Roseanne and Siefert began developing an American version of “Absolutely Fabulous,” the cult British TV comedy about two self-obsessed women refugees from the ‘60s. Roseanne’s version will use the show’s nickname: “AbFab.”
“It’s a great show, very excessive--which I like,” Siefert enthuses. “I think that’s what Roseanne has in mind: irreverent, politically incorrect, women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Roseanne is really special; I like her so much.”
Since the birth of the comedian’s son a few months ago, that project has been put on a back burner. “I hope it happens, but I don’t worry about it,” Siefert says earnestly. Roseanne, meanwhile, has continued to be a booster, staging the initial reading of “Little Egypt” earlier this year, and providing the seed money for this run.
Even if “AbFab” doesn’t happen, Siefert has plenty to keep her busy. Her past writing credits include the film “Cool Runnings” and the highly praised TV series “I’ll Fly Away,” and she’s currently penning an adaptation of Balzac’s “Cousin Bette” for Searchlight Pictures and an adaptation of Lane Von Herzen’s “Unfastened Heart” for Columbia. She’s also working on a “Little Egypt” TV pilot for Castle Rock Entertainment. “The focus will be on the two guys,” she notes, “but I’m going to have to make Watson a lot more lovable.”
Siefert traces her own affection for the arts to the third grade.
“We had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Marlow, who built a puppet stage for us,” she recalls. “She was one of those rare, creative people; not a week goes by that I don’t think of her. It was a great outlet. As a little kid, I loved to perform. When I grew up, I got shy.”
Siefert admits she still wages a running battle against that shyness and vulnerability. “The way I hide is behind large comic gestures,” she says. “But it doesn’t take much to peel that away. I think boffo-ness is a way of hiding from sentimentality and pain. And I’m real anxious to risk sentimentality--in theater and film and life.”
Yet as a playwright, Siefert admits, “I still feel like a neophyte.” It’s not modesty. “No, I think I’m really good,” she says matter-of-factly. “But I haven’t written a lot of plays. I do hope to."*
“LITTLE EGYPT,"Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. Price: $20. Phone: (213) 957-1152.