Flowers with a card, a surprise pair of plane tickets, a lovingly crafted mix tape -- these are among the time-honored tools of courtship available to the average mortal.
But how about a darkly comic two-act play about tensions and flirtations among succeeding generations of urban immigrants? That’s what Oliver Mayer sent to Marlene Forte within a few months of meeting her at a theater retreat in upstate New York in 2003. “We had three days together there, and I was just fascinated with her,” recalled Mayer, 43, of a LAByrinth Theatre Company intensive where he met Forte. “I said at the end, ‘I’m going to write you a play.’ I think she took that to mean, ‘I want to get in your pants,’ which of course is true too. But I said, ‘No, I’m really going to do this.’ ” Mayer’s unconventional romantic gesture must have done the trick: Not only is Forte now his wife, she’s also starring in the play, “Dias y Flores,” in its world premiere by Company of Angels, under the direction of Luis Alfaro.
Inspired in part by Forte’s family history, the play sets Sherezad and Farruco, fortysomething children of the first wave of Cubans to flee Castro’s revolution, on a collision course with two more recent arrivals to New York’s Lower East Side: a young Cuban guitarist, Silvio, and a serene, epicene Mexican, Pantys. Forte’s family, like Sherezad’s, moved from Cuba to Greenwich Village when she was 2, but “she cried so much that they had to move,” Mayer said over brunch in Los Feliz. They ended up in Union City, N.J., which has a sizable Cuban American population.
Mayer, a proud native Angeleno of Mexican and German descent, had also taken note of New York City’s changing Latino demographics. “When I’m in New York, I always have a sandwich on the corner of Thompson and Spring in SoHo and watch the handball courts there,” said Mayer, trim-looking and vigorous, his salt-and-pepper goatee and flat cap evoking a hipster August Wilson. “It used to be mostly Dominicans, Puerto Ricans playing there, right? Well, a few years ago I went to the same place and there were Latinos, but they looked more Indian, and I saw one wearing a do-rag with a Mexican flag on it.”
His reaction surprised him.
“I was freaked out because I didn’t see this happening, I just saw the end result,” he recalls. “And it occurred to me that if I’m getting freaked out, how must people feel who strongly identify themselves with the New York Latin thing, with ‘Jenny From the Block’? That’s what I wanted to write about.”
Apart from trying to woo an East Coast actress, what drew this California writer to dramatize an ethnic turf battle in Lower Manhattan? One might ask a similar question about “Laws of Sympathy,” another Mayer play that will premiere at L.A.'s Playwrights’ Arena in late February. It follows a pair of Somalian refugees adapting to American life with the help of some equally confused social workers in Atlanta.
“It’s so interesting that this came from Oliver,” said Jon Lawrence Rivera, artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, who will direct “Laws of Sympathy.” “It does feel like it’s one step removed from his voice; I do believe he is truly an L.A. playwright. But he’s interested in the immigrant, the plight of the displaced human being. As a Filipino American, I connected to that story.”
Indeed, from the start, Mayer has largely sidestepped narrow classification as a single-issue ethnic or regional playwright. His first big national play, 1994’s “Blade to the Heat,” a volatile drama about a gay Latino boxer in the 1950s, announced an ambitious social and theatrical agenda.
“One of my big heroes is William Saroyan,” Mayer said. Though the Fresno-based author of “The Time of Your Life” was an Armenian American, Mayer said, “I kind of think he was the first Chicano because he writes about mixed people. Maybe because I’m a mutt myself, I think Chicano means ‘mixed.’ ” He also credits an unquestionably Chicano writer, Luis Valdez, whose 1978 “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum inspired him to become a playwright. But even here, he places Valdez in context as a California writer, alongside Saroyan and John Steinbeck. “I feel it’s almost a regional bloodline -- there’s a California consciousness at play in all these writers,” Mayer said.
But there’s also a more personal reason for his wide-ranging preoccupations.
“More and more over my career, I want to embrace -- I’ve always done it, but now I’m more aware of it -- where I am, who I am, what my big problems are, what are the biggest questions in my life,” he said.
One big question about Mayer since “Blade to the Heat” has been: Where did the heat go? While the play got mixed reviews in its premiere at New York’s Public Theater, it put Mayer on the map. Madonna snapped up movie rights (though the film has never been made) and the play had a subsequent 1996 run at the Taper, where Mayer served as assistant literary manager through much of the 1990s.
But he left the Taper in 1997, and while he has kept up a steady output of plays, he has had only a handful of productions in New York, L.A. and at regional theaters since his splashy debut. He’s found more of a welcome mat with such San Francisco companies as Thick Description, he said.
“I haven’t gone away, but you’re absolutely right, I haven’t done a lot,” Mayer said. “I’m not a Michael Sargent or a Justin Tanner. And the truth is, I’m not that represented in New York either, which saddens me slightly.”
His colleague Alfaro is also a playwright, and the two teach playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. In the introduction to a collection of Mayer’s plays published last year, Alfaro wrote, “the mark of a great playwright is in that period where no one is paying attention,” and that Mayer has spent the years since “Blade” steadily following his muse and honing his voice. “I’ve seen him mature,” Alfaro added, alluding to Mayer’s “hothead days” at the Taper, when he was known to storm out of rooms. Everyone, including Mayer, credits marriage as a calming influence.
“I’ll tell you, today a car passed me on the right, and even a few years ago, I would have chased him,” Mayer confessed. “I have a real temper on me. But ever since I met Marlene, I’m actually able to breathe and say, ‘I got you, so let them pass me on the right.’ ”
‘Dias y Flores’
Where: Company of Angels Theatre at the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Contact: (323) 883-1717