As a writer behind the musical “Wicked,” Winnie Holzman has shared in one of the biggest commercial successes in Broadway history. Since opening in 2003, the musical has made more than $300 million and is still going strong on multiple continents.
Holzman’s latest stage work is a far cry from the emerald city of Broadway. “Assisted Living,” which she co-wrote with her husband, actor Paul Dooley, is an intimate play running at 99-seat Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West L.A.
For the couple, who live in Toluca Lake, the new play is a small, highly personal endeavor that represents close to 30 years of work on and off -- mostly off. They said they began writing the play in the mid-'80s shortly after they had met at an improv acting class in New York.
“We wrote about 30 pages of it, and then we had a baby,” Holzman recalled. “We put the play aside and every decade or so we would remember it, and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to finish it?’ But we would always get distracted by life.”
“Assisted Living” is a three-part comedy that follows the intersecting paths of multiple characters, including a pair of actors on a TV soap opera and a very enthusiastic fan. Holzman and Dooley play all the characters.
Dooley said the opportunity to finally finish the play came when the couple was stranded in New York during Hurricane Sandy last year. The hurricane hit the East Coast in late October, causing widespread power outages.
“We couldn’t leave where we were staying. So we got the idea to start on it again -- we did a good deal of work on it [in New York] and finished it later,” said Dooley.
Holzman said that the hurricane “gave us an enforced amount of time with the play.”
“Assisted Living” begins with two cantankerous soap-opera actors rehearsing their lines and moves on to two related scenarios that deal with the nature of fame and fandom. Holzman described the play as a story about “people who help each other in unexpected ways and who are connected in unexpected ways.”
Neither had experience working in soap operas, but they were intrigued by them, especially by the demands that the shows put on actors to learn large amounts of lines in short periods of time.
The couple said their writing process was informal and largely unstructured.
“We created certain parts while driving, or we would be out to dinner,” Dooley recalled. “We would have an idea for a section or we would divide it up, and show it to each other. We don’t either of us use a desk. We sit in bed with a laptop sometimes.”
Dooley’s acting credits include the movie “Breaking Away” in 1979 and six films with Robert Altman, whom the actor credits for plucking him from the theater world and giving him a screen career.
Holzman has spent much of her career writing for television. She has worked on ABC’s “thirtysomething” and created the short-lived but enduringly popular series “My So-Called Life.”
She wrote the book for “Wicked,” adapting the novel by Gregory Maguire. The musical is celebrating 10 years on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre and tours nationally.
Holzman said she continues to work on the musical by helping songwriter Stephen Schwartz to oversee foreign-language productions, including the recent Dutch-language version that opened in Amsterdam.
She said a big-screen version of “Wicked” is in the works. (Universal Pictures is one of the show’s producers on Broadway.)
“There will be a movie and I’ll be writing it,” she said. “And now you know as much as I do about it.”
The couple said they wrote “Assisted Living” primarily to give them the opportunity to act together on stage. It’s not their first theatrical collaboration -- they previously wrote a 10-minute play called “Post-Its (Notes on a Marriage),” a comic take on “Love Letters.” The short play has been produced by Rogue Machine Theatre.
The husband and wife team collaborated on the 2010 ABC Family series “Huge,” which Holzman developed with their daughter, Savannah. (The elder Dooley played a supporting role in the series, which was canceled after one season.)
Even after three decades of gestation, “Assisted Living” isn’t quite finished. The couple is having a somewhat difficult time letting it go, tinkering with it well into the rehearsal process.
“We keep changing it in small ways every day,” said Holzman.
Where: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m., Sundays. Ends May 12.
Contact: (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com