Finding an Afterlife as a Playwright

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Writing, actress-comedian Anne Meara has discovered, beats acting in a number of ways. When you're sitting at the typewriter (she's yet to plunge into cyberspace), you don't have to look good. And you can have a glass of wine before the play.

The reaction accorded "After-Play," her debut as a playwright, adds to the allure. After moving from the Manhattan Theatre Club to off-Broadway, a 1996 story in the New York Daily News called it "the sharpest and longest-running comedy in New York." Critically, too, the play held its own, walking off with the 1995 Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for promising playwrights.

"After-Play," in which two sixtysomething couples meet after theater to catch up on their lives, also took off out west. After an enthusiastic response at the Pasadena Playhouse last fall, the cast--Beatrice Arthur, Paul Dooley, Marian Mercer and Robert Mandan in the leads--is now performing the piece at Beverly Hills' Can~on Theater through April 12.

"None of these characters grew up as sharecroppers," says the 68-year-old Meara, sipping a cup of tea in a West Hollywood hotel the morning of the opening. "Yet they've had their share of challenges. Each of them walked the walk. . . . I see them as valiant, in a way."

In the early '60s, Meara made a name for herself through the comedy team Stiller & Meara, in which she was paired with her husband, Jerry--to whom she's been married for 44 years. Since then, she's also had a successful career in the theater, including on and off Broadway, TV ("Archie Bunker's Place," "All My Children") and film ("Awakenings," "The Daytrippers").

Showing up for the photo shoot makeup-free in a sweater, jeans and running shoes, she looks like a poster girl for self-acceptance. Yet there's considerable "scar tissue" underneath it all, Meara insists.

"I no longer wake up with that gnawing fear, the conviction when I'd hear an ambulance or fire engine that my husband and children were dead on the street," Meara says. "I no longer suffer from the stage fright which left my mouth so dry I'd bring a wet washcloth and a lemon to the theater to suck on. Nine years of therapy turned things around--and motivated me to write this play."

Meara sat down to write between October 1994 and February 1995, "raping and pillaging" ideas and dialogue she'd been scribbling for more than a decade. Convinced she had a play in her, she determined to bring the characters to life.

The impassioned Terry (Mercer), part of a husband-and-wife comedy team, is Irish Catholic--as Meara was before she became disaffected and converted to reform Judaism. And Terry, like Meara, spent years on the couch. "Terry proselytizes about therapy like she would about a diet in which you're allowed to have chocolate ice cream after every meal," the playwright says. The more acerbic Renee (Arthur) is patterned on her writer-friend Lila Garrett, with whom Meara co-wrote "The Other Woman," a Writers Guild of America award-winning TV movie. A much-married, take-it-as-it-comes sort who bucks introspection, she's given to statements like "I had my last Tampax bronzed ages ago" or "This whole evening has turned into an extended root canal."

Another couple who lost a child to AIDS joins them at the table, providing instant context to their kvetching. "I based them on friends of mine who lost a daughter--my godchild--and a son," Meara says. "No matter what those books say about the stages of grieving, I've learned there's no statute of limitations on grief."

Though Meara never intended to act in the piece, she agreed to step in to the New York production when Rue McClanahan left for a London engagement. Recently cured of incapacitating stage fright, she played Terry and, later, Renee.

"Though it's never that simple, I came to understand that my stage fright was linked in part to my mother's suicide," the actress says. "As an only child, I went from being the center of a threesome to living in a Dickensian boarding school at the age of 11--never permitted by the nuns to feel sorry for myself. Coming in as the playwright also freed me, in a sense. My ego was bound up with the writing rather than acting, so I was much less worried about how I was coming off."

Stiller played Renee's husband Phil at the Cape and Westport playhouses and during the last three months of the New York run. Their onstage bickering, she says, mirrors life at home.

"The need to be right all the time is a killer," Meara acknowledges. "We've slowed down a bit in that respect. I never ran my writing by Jerry, since we see the relationship differently. I'm skewed toward the bleak, remembering everything terrible that happens. 'Don't you remember the good times?' he asks. 'Maybe we were only pretending,' I say."

Like Terry, Meara admits, she and Jerry--regulars on "The Ed Sullivan Show" after being spotted at the Blue Angel in 1963--were so focused on "becoming rich and famous" that they may have shortchanged their kids. Fortunately Amy, a 35-year-old actress ("Cable Guy"), and Ben, a 32-year-old director ("Reality Bites") and actor ("Flirting With Disaster," "Zero Effect"), turned out OK. "Now that I'm no longer ovulating, I'm ready to be a mother," Meara observes. "I feel much closer to them now."

For those predisposed to the spiritual, there's also a metaphysical bent to the play--which is directed by David Saint here, as it was in New York. The restaurant has an otherworldly feel. The waiter, named Raziel after the angel of mysteries, can cure back ailments or cause snow to fall. Meara says he's played by a person of color to suggest "universality."

"I see this as sort of a Last Supper since the people are prepared to go onto the next horizon--wherever that place may be," she says. "I just hope it's not Cleveland, where Jerry and I bombed. If we'd pulled out an accordion and played a polka maybe we'd have been a hit."

Such political incorrectness is characteristic of the play, in which aging, menopause, ungrateful children and even cancer become targets of Meara's barbs. Only occasionally did the "taste" factor gave her pause. Renee's line "My new breast looks better than my face" is one of her favorites, the writer recalls. But she wasn't comfortable keeping it in until she'd cleared it with a friend who'd undergone a mastectomy.

"I don't see myself as a Joan of Arc on the barricades," Meara maintains. "But if you write to be liked, you might as well sign on to a sitcom. In any case, I prefer not to step out and analyze too much or I'll start referring to myself in the third person--like Richard Nixon or the Queen Mother. I've also stopped reading reviews. One can be pierced by kisses as well as spears."

Still, "After-Play's" success must be particularly gratifying given Meara's lifelong quest for legitimacy. Though comedy gave her a sense of self, she always disdained it, she admits.

"I had visions of being a deep, serious actress--probably based on misconceptions about Stanislavsky who, let's hope, enjoyed a good laugh out there on the Russian steppes. In the past few years, I've come to terms with the fact that no one is going to ask me to do 'Mourning Becomes Electra'--I guess I've entered a comfort zone."

Playwright John Guare, a friend of the actress ever since she starred in his 1971 "The House of Blue Leaves," told her that "After-Play" is her "Chekhov." You've still got to write your "Ibsen," he said.

"I never went to college, but I think I know what he's getting at," Meara says. "Whereas 'After-Play' is totally character-driven, Ibsen is more plot-oriented like Guare's 'Six Degrees of Separation.' In that play, the fallout from one guy affects everyone."

Meara, in fact, has begun another play--one whose theme she's reluctant to reveal. ("It's about 'choices'--that's all I'll say.") And two of her films should surface before long. In John Shea's "Southie," she plays the mother of a South Boston man (Donnie Wahlberg) who returns to his old neighborhood. In Joan Micklin Silver's "A Fish in the Bathtub," she and Stiller star in a comedy about a 40-year marriage that goes on the rocks.

"Anne is totally underappreciated as an actor," Silver says. "On screen, she's peppery, spirited--both funny and moving. In the end, after all, love hurts."

Whatever kudos come her way, Meara says, it's not her style to breathe easy. "I never let myself get too cocky," she explains. "There are too many dead nuns in my head."

*

"AFTER-PLAY," Can~on Theatre, 205 N. Can~on Drive, Beverly Hills. Dates: Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends April 12. Prices: $25-$42.50. Phone: (310) 859-2830.

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