Playwright Matthew Leavitt fittingly dedicates the premiere of The Boomerang Effect to his late mother, producer Sharon Lane. It was she who many years ago befriended writer and director Del Shores and later produced the film version of Shores’ play Sordid Lives.
“Matt is like family to me,” says Shores, seated at a card table with Leavitt and director Dámaso Rodriguez inside a rehearsal space in Hollywood. The air mattress around which so much of the play revolves sits only a couple feet away. The cast is on lunch break.
Leavitt lost both parents to cancer in quick succession; his mother died seven years ago, an anniversary commemorated only a week before our conversation. Shores remembers. “Sharon was in the theater, watching a rehearsal of [his play] Trailer Trash Housewife when she got heartburn and the next day was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Life can change so fast. Yet Matt’s smile never leaves his face.”
Leavitt admits that is why he writes. “I could never act. I would never stop smiling.”
He wrote plays while attending high school in Sherman Oaks and living next door to Shores. The two were fast friends during Lane’s later years, and they have remained so since her death. Shores was a fan of Leavitt’s early on. “I always loved his writing. He’d send me his plays when he went away to college. I read this one last year and said, yes! This is the one! You’ve hit it!”
Deciding to produce The Boomerang Effect was an easy decision for Shores only because of his love for Leavitt’s family. “Well, I’m selfish. It’s too hard to produce other people’s material. I’m too immersed in my own projects, so I turn down everybody. But I love Matt and I love this play and I loved — loved — his mom, so this is for her and for him and for me.”
Boomerang occurred to Leavitt last year. It’s one of his first forays into contemporary writing since his youth, before he went to Pomona College — where he studied Shakespeare and adapted and directed several of the Bard’s works. Leavitt found comfort in the language, and it seemed to flow easily to him.
When he surveyed the Los Angeles theater scene over the past couple years, he found a scarcity of comedy. “I just wanted to do something purely comic and not to make people rethink life, but be entertained. But I wanted the car ride home to be just uncomfortable enough.”
First came the structure. “That was the first concept. We have five couples. We start with the first couple and stop half-way through their scene and go to the second couple, then the third and the fourth. We run the fifth couple all the way through their scene and then pick up and end the fourth story, then the third, the second and finally end the play with the first couple we started with.”
Once that structural premise was in place, Leavitt looked to unify relationship themes and how each scene could influence the next. “I was looking for a chain of causality. Once I had these concepts, the situations came pretty easily.”
Neil Simon comes to mind when Leavitt describes his work. “I’m a big fan of his, so it’s easy to think of California Suite. He’s certainly an influence.”
Simon, however is not Leavitt’s favorite American playwright. He bestows that honor on the gentleman to his left, Shores, who has penned — besides Sordid Lives and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife — Yellow, Southern Baptist Sissies (his dad was a Southern Baptist preacher), Cheatin’ and Daddy’s Dyin’: Who’s Got the Will, which became a film in 1990 that Shores wrote and executive produced.
“I don’t think any playwright I’ve ever seen has been able to walk that fine line between comedy and drama as Del has,” says Leavitt. “When I was in college, Southern Baptist Sissies and Trials and Tribulations were being produced. I would be there every weekend. That really inspired me to do theater.”
It started, he says, when he attended Harvard for a summer just after high school. “I wanted to take some kind of writing class and they had a playwriting class available, so I said why not? I had a very encouraging professor who submitted a play I wrote [Losers and Fools] to a festival, and a year later I got a letter saying I was in the semi-finals of the Stephen Sondheim Young Playwrights [Inc.] festival. Then in college I went the Shakespeare route.”
Rodriguez, who had no prior experience working with Leavitt or Shores, quickly recognized the Bard’s influence on the playwright. “Matt clearly has some Shakespearean rhythms to his writing. He’s an Anglophile or a Britophile as he calls himself, so there’s a deep reserve of comic material.”
Leavitt adds, “Shakespeare, with his comedies, has similar situations, although there’s nothing like people hiding [in Boomerang] as he has in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I always try to write with Shakespeare’s rhythms and I’m so glad Dámaso agrees. There’s some incredible banter between, say, Beatrice and Benedick [in Much Ado About Nothing] that I try to emulate, or like Katherine and Petruchio [in Taming of the Shrew]. That for me is some of the greatest writing of all time. Funniest, too.”
Once Shores agreed to back Leavitt’s play, he began the search for the right director. “I wanted the best, so I asked my friend Dany Margolies.” The critic and editor suggested several names, but “she said Dámaso is the best. I’d known Scott Lowell from Queer as Folk and he said, yes, this is the guy to get.” [Rodriguez directed Lowell in A Noise Within’s production of Blithe Spirit in 2010.]
“Plus,” Shores adds, “I saw a picture of Dámaso online and he had really great hair.”
It was the writing that first enticed Rodriguez to sign on. “And Matt, too, right? I was getting a brand new play, a really fresh draft and once I began reading it and didn’t stop, I thought, well, you have to listen to that.”
Rodriguez has spent most of the past few years directing classic works (the recent Desire Under the Elms for A Noise Within) or darkly comedic pieces (the recent No Good Deed) with Furious Theatre, which he co-founded in 2001. “It seems every play you see advertised today is a dark comedy. Oftentimes when you’re producing a play that’s a drama, if there’s any bit of humor, you’d better call it a dark comedy if you want to get an audience. This play is just funny. It’s a bit deep, too, with a universality among the relationships that’s relevant to all sorts of people.”
He finds that surprisingly rare, refreshing and exciting. “It’s very satisfying as a freelance director to go from dark to light and from classic to contemporary. The structure hooked me too. The writer was trying to accomplish something that I didn’t get right away. I knew there were connections, but also that there was more than I was seeing.”
And in Boomerang the people could live next door. “I would meet with Del and Matt in Atwater Village and Los Feliz and I thought that this is where these people live,” Rodriguez says. “In their bedrooms and in their lives are iPads and Words With Friends and iPhones and Facebook. They’re not the basis for jokes or hip pop culture references. They just felt contemporary and local. I liked that.”
It hit home for Shores, too. “What I love about this play is that it is so current, even with the economy and how it affects the characters. It’s amazing to watch how a man is being forced into early retirement and his strange response to that — he’s the only old guy in the play — and the young people who can’t get a job.”
The director’s challenge, with a set that remains nearly the same throughout, is to make all five stories and the characters in them rich enough that nothing feels repetitive. “I didn’t want to have a redundant beat. I wanted to keep progressing and moving forward toward the climax. So, how do I not repeat this one bedroom? Well, you create ground rules about being creative. We’ve changed the external world just enough with different entrance and exit points. The bathroom changes. The hallway door changes.”
The comedy, he hopes, will overshadow the necessity of these solutions. And Leavitt admits he is a comedy writer. “Well, at this moment I am.”
Shores interrupts. “The answer is, yes, he is. It’s not joke, joke, joke writing. It’s character. It’s relationship. I love the moment in the gay scene when he talks about his dad and he doesn’t know how he broke his finger, but his dad is in another scene and we see how he broke his finger. It’s not even a joke, but it’s funny to us.”
Not so funny is the sentiment behind the premiere. Leavitt turns to Shores. “You and my mom were inseparable.”
Shores nods. “We were beyond Will and Grace. I’m going through a divorce right now and I wish she were here to support me — she’d also tell him off!”
As the cast returns, sipping the remnants of their iced coffees and sodas, Leavitt leans in. “It means everything to me that Del and I have remained such close friends seven years after my mom’s passing. I’m very fortunate to have this incredible writer and person as a friend. Thanks to him, this is nothing short of a dream come true.”
The Boomerang Effect, Odyssey Theatre 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Opens March 24. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $25-30. www.boomerangeffectplay.com. 310-477-2055.
***All The Boomerang Effect production photos by Ed Krieger