If you’ve owned a TV in the last 20 years, chances are you’re already a fan of writer Elin Hampton. She’s penned episodes of television series like Mad About You, Pinky and the Brain, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dream On — not a bad portfolio for someone who admits that she “stumbled” upon her career in television after moving from the East Coast to Los Angeles to become an actress.
In fact, theater was her first love. And with her new play The Bells of West 87th, she says she’s returning back to her roots.
Theater is “like a sickness,” she says with a smile.
The family comedy, opening Saturday at LA’s Greenway Court Theatre, tells the story of Molly, a single 40-year-old amateur poet who lives in Manhattan with her mother, Ida, and next door to her nearly deaf father, Eli — who thinks Ida lives in Staten Island with their other daughter, Maxine. To keep track of Eli’s whereabouts (and so she knows when it’s safe to leave Molly’s apartment without being caught), Ida has installed an intricate system of secret bells throughout his apartment. But what’s Molly to do when she brings her new boyfriend home to meet her dysfunctional family, and he fits right in?
Hampton, who also wrote the musical Who’s Your Mommy?! (aka Amother Musical), tapped longtime friend Richard Pierce to direct (his previous producing credits include the ABC miniseries 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and HBO’s The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, and he recently directed the Neo Ensemble Theatre production of Mitch Albom’s Duck Hunter Shoots Angel).
The play will re-unite several Buffy alumni — actors Juliet Landau, James Marsters and Dagney Kerr star as Molly, Molly’s boyfriend and Maxine, and die-hard Buffy fans can stick around after the Sept. 15 and 29 performances for a Q&A with the cast.
Speaking in the lobby of the Greenway Court Theatre before rehearsal, Hampton reveals that the inspiration for the play came about three years ago, when a friend told her that her mother kept track of her father using a system of bells after they separated.
“You know things that happen and you say, ‘I couldn’t write this, it’s just so weird?’ Truth is weirder than real life, [it’s weirder] than what you can imagine. It was one of those instances,” Hampton says.
Though the inspiration for the bells came from real life, Hampton says the rest of the middle-aged coming-of-age story came from her own imagination, influenced by her Jewish upbringing on the Upper West Side of New York City. You’ll recognize these characters: the grown daughter who’s not yet independent, helicopter parents trying to age gracefully, young people trying to make their far-fetched dreams come true. Actually, a number of her family members made their way into the characters — though Hampton says her own mother isn’t an “overbearing Jewish mother” like Ida, she inspired many of Ida’s lines. Her father-in-law was also a major influence on the Eli character. “Similar personalities,” she says coyly, by way of explanation.
As luck would have it, the idea began forming as Hampton happened to be taking a playwriting course at UCLA, and she pitched the idea for an assignment and started writing it in class. She continued working on it piece by piece after the class ended, and after joining InterACT Theatre Company, Hampton began holding weekly readings of the play, bringing in new portions as she wrote them and inviting actors to read the parts (including Landau, who joined the cast after reading the part of Molly).
Pierce, too, came on board as director after watching one of these readings, and directed a reading himself for Road Theatre Company’s 2012 Summer Playwrights Festival. Hampton says holding multiple readings with dozens of actors was the key to figuring out what worked, and what didn’t.
“If everyone can’t do it well, then I don’t think it’s well-written. I feel like Meryl Streep could probably read a phone book and be great, but, like this morning [at rehearsal] someone was late and someone else came in and did a part who had never done it before, and when it works it works,” Hampton says. “When an actor says, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me,’ or ‘This doesn’t work for me,’ or ‘How do I make this costume change so fast?,’ it starts evolving and you realize, ‘Oh, we need more time here, we need a pause here, we can’t use her in this scene, this prop is ridiculous, it’s too expensive’.”
In fact, she says it was through the readings that she realized Bells wasn’t just a Jewish story, as she had originally thought. “[It] actually surprised me in the readings, because I had every ethnic group out there saying, ‘This is my family.’ I said ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ So I think it’s just family,” Hampton says.
The play itself has been a collaboration of family, namely with Fury, who has been Hampton’s writing partner on many of her sitcoms and frequently gave his own notes and suggestions throughout Bells’ rehearsal process. If was Fury who recommended Marsters, whom he directed in Buffy and Angel, for the part of Molly’s new boyfriend.
“He said, ‘I know he can do this part,’ even though I went, ‘James? But he’s like this stud, and he has to be this nerd’,” Hampton says. “And he said ‘Trust me, he can do it’.”
Although Landau and Marsters joined the cast thanks to their previous experience working with Hampton and Fury on Buffy, Hampton insists that Kerr and the actor playing Eli, Robert Towers (whom Fury cast in an episode of Angel) joined the production purely by coincidence. Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon tends to hire really good people, she reckons.
Hampton says she has had to make adjustments. moving from TV to theater. She’s starting from scratch developing her characters, rather than working with ongoing roles, and she’s had to get used to scaling back the production values. Ask for a kitchen set for a TV show, she notes, and you’ll get a fully-functioning stove; ask for it in theater, and you’ll still have to figure out how you’re going to manifest hot water.
But she credits her TV background with her ability to collaborate — “Sometimes you have to let your ego go out the door and say, ‘You know what, your joke is funnier,” she says. And laughter, for Hampton, is what her work is really all about. She describes herself as a modern Neil Simon or Wendy Wasserstein, influenced by an old-fashioned sense of humor with a modern twist.
“There’s so little entertainment out there that’s not heavy and not depressing. I go to so much theater and I’m always depressed. I hope that people are able to laugh at their families, laugh at their lives and have a fun night out,” Hampton says. Still, there is a message to be taken from the antics of Molly and her parents. “There’s always hope, you can always change your life and make it better. You don’t have to be stuck. Keep reinventing yourself.”
The Bells of West 87th, Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave. Los Angeles 90036. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 6 pm, through Oct. 13. Tickets: $34; Sept. 15 and 29 performances with post-show Q&A: $50. www.greenwayarts.org. 323-655-7679 x100.
**All The Bells of West 87th production photos by Deverill Weekes.
Erin Migdol is a lifelong theater fan and writer who has contributed to news outlets including Huffington Post, Giuliana Rancic’s FabFitFun, UC Davis’ California Aggie and San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO-TV. She was born and raised in the Bay Area but now calls Los Angeles home. Find her on Twitter at @emigdol and online at emigdol.wordpress.com.