The audience laughed steadily throughout and cheered happily at the end as "Be Aggressive," a new comedy about cheerleaders, death and the building of freeways through scenic Southern California canyons, had its first preview performance last week at the La Jolla Playhouse. If this was a harbinger of the overall reception for the production, which opened last night, playwright Annie Weisman might be expected to kick back this week and bask in an unusual achievement: making it in the theatrical big time the week after turning 28.
But there is no time to bask. Weisman was expected in Costa Mesa today to watch actors audition for her next play, "Hold Please," which opens Sept. 21 at South Coast Repertory. It explores the office politics among four secretaries at a big law firm. Neither Des McAnuff nor David Emmes, veteran leaders of the La Jolla Playhouse and South Coast Repertory, respectively, could think offhand of another playwright arriving on multiple major stages so quickly and so young.
McAnuff said Weisman's Southern California double-dip puts him in mind of the way David Mamet exploded on the New York theater scene in the late 1970s with "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "American Buffalo."
"I think Annie's going to have an amazing career," McAnuff said. "She has a remarkable ear, which is something Mamet has as well, and it makes them ideally suited for writing for the theater."
Others apparently agree: After making her first splash in La Jolla and Costa Mesa, Weisman, who lives in L.A.'s Fairfax district, will turn to her growing backlog of work orders. She has been commissioned to write plays for the Mark Taper Forum and A.S.K. Theater Projects in Los Angeles, and has been engaged to write the book for a new musical being developed by Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, R.I.
And yes, she has begun her first preliminary, get-acquainted talks with producers in Hollywood.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director at Trinity Repertory, says the scripts he gets from young writers tend to be "incredibly earnest, humorless" pieces or laden with "incredibly hip characters who don't have any redeeming human qualities. Annie avoids both those pitfalls. I think that's why we old guys [who run major theaters] are going for her. She has an extremely hip, funny, ironic worldview which one can easily identify with her generation, yet it's got not an ounce of cynicism or nastiness or calculatedness in it. It's a young person's sensibility that we get."
Weisman betrayed no signs of overload or anxiety as she sat on the La Jolla Playhouse's patio about two hours before the first unveiling of "Be Aggressive" Wednesday.
"It's wild, it's hectic. I'm thrilled about it," she said of having to keep her head in two productions at once. "I find it more energizing than tiring."
She is small--small enough to have been the one who topped the human pyramid and got flung into the air during her own cheerleading days at Torrey Pines High School in Del Mar. Her voice is youthful and reedy.
People who know Weisman well say she is a notable wit in conversation, but in an interview she was earnest and thoughtful.
It is fitting that the theater establishment of Southern California has gotten so solidly behind Weisman, because she is very much its product. She was schooled on musicals she saw in L.A. at the Ahmanson and Schubert, on Shakespeare at the Old Globe in San Diego and a variety of fare at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Her dream of becoming an actress died early as she auditioned for school and community theater plays and kept coming up empty. "I was really no damn good," she said with a laugh. "But I wanted to be part of theater."
She wrote plays at Williams College in Massachusetts and during her junior year abroad at Oxford, but she wasn't sure theater was her future. After graduation in 1995 she went to work at the Mark Taper Forum.
"Immediately, it was like a home and a family," she says.
But Weisman kept a little family secret: While helping to evaluate scripts that other playwrights were submitting to the Taper, she was working on one of her own.
"I was incredibly shy about that, because people [at the Taper] saw me as an administrator, not a writer," she said.
The truth finally came out in 1998 when Weisman took an early draft of "Be Aggressive" to A.S.K., an organization that fosters new plays and pitches them to producers. She left the Taper, which quickly chose "Be Aggressive" for its 1999 New Work Festival and assigned Lisa Peterson to direct the workshop production.
The La Jolla Playhouse signed up the writer-director team for the world premiere of "Be Aggressive." Weisman wrote "Hold Please" during the past year on a commission from South Coast Repertory and is working on the premiere with director Mark Rucker.
With "Be Aggressive," Weisman and Peterson say, the challenge has been to take an audience on a shifting ride in which Laura, a 17-year-old, tries to cope with the sudden death of her mother and her low standing as a mere spotter on the high school cheerleading squad in the mythical San Diego suburb of Vista del Sol.
"It's fun and easy to satirize cheerleading, and I certainly do some of that," but the greater point, she says, is to use cheerleading and its happy, innocent connotations as a setting for what happens when tragedy strikes in "a culture where there really isn't a place for a painful, unexpected event."
Weisman sees "Hold Please," which grew out of her interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and her observations while working as an office temp, as a more barbed work. The comedy examines the ambitions of young women trying to rise in the corporate world, and Weisman posits a case of sexual harassment in which a male executive is unjustly accused.
"I'm absolutely positive that many women will be upset by what I say in the play," Weisman said. "I think that a lot of times young women are very much in control of their desires and intentions when they get into relationships with powerful men, and what's sometimes characterized as an abuse of power can be [something else]."
In the next two months, as critics, audiences and the rest of the theater world weigh in, Weisman says she simply isn't thinking about her debut in terms of what's at stake in her own career.
She says that her mentors in the theater have drummed it into her that it's the work itself that matters.
"One of the key lines in our play is when the main character remembers her mother saying, 'Somebody has to teach you that you have impact,"' Peterson said. "That says what Annie is after."
"Be Aggressive," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 26. $19 to $42, with pay-what-you-can admission for the Aug. 4 matinee. (858) 550-1010.
"Hold Please," South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Sept 18-Oct. 21. Single tickets on sale Aug. 12. (714) 708-5555.