Volume 75, Number 46 | April 5 - 11 2006

Doris Baizley, a playwright who as a kid thought she invented plays, sends two of them here.

Turning real-life events into plausible wackiness

By Jerry Tlallmer

The Mrs. Los Angeles contestant in the “Mrs. California 1955” finals is rehearsing for the event (worth 65 points) called My Proudest Moment. The three other finalists — Mrs. Modesto, Mrs. San Bernardino, Mrs. San Francisco — will cite their own Proudests: motherhood; an outdoor night biblically interpreting the Big Dipper to a bunch of Cub Scouts; the day a husband was promoted to vice president.

Mrs. Los Angeles — her name is Dot — reaches back a dozen years, to the winter of 1943, for her own proudest moment. As a WAVE in the U.S., Navy on radio watch at midnight in Cape May, New Jersey, she had taken it on herself to de-garble and pass along the information that seven German wolfpack submarines were on the trail of a slow-moving convoy loaded with materiel for our troops in Europe. Thanks to her, the convoy changed course, two destroyers were sent out as hunter-killers, two subs were sunk, and the convoy was saved.
 
My husband — James — was on one of those destroyers. There I was, sitting in that little shore station in the middle of the night, sending that message out over the whole Atlantic Ocean to that ship at sea. Hoping that radio operator out there’s on his toes, hoping it works. There I am — one part of the huge system they’re depending on for their lives — more than that, for victory — for freedom — Europe — hell, for the world. And it all comes down to me in that room sending those radio waves out through my fingers to that ship in the middle of the ocean …
 
Her recital doesn’t cut much ice with the promotion guy from the West Coast gas company that’s sponsoring Dot for the championship. He thinks she should be concentrating on Sewing, Baking, Homemaking, Best All Around Cooking, Best Ice Desert, Table Setting, Best Personality, Best Evening Dress, and all the other essential categories.

So begins “Mrs. California,” one of two highly original plays by a Californian named Doris Baizley that have recently made the New York off-Broadway scene: “Mrs. California,” which just ended its run at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, and “Shiloh Rules,” through April 8, at the Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street.

“Shiloh Rules,” an even crazier work than “Mrs. California,” has the ferocious 1862 battle of Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, re-enacted by a group of women, Northerners and Southerners, of our own day — with the only hard common sense (of a sort) being applied by a caustic, no-nonsense National Parks ranger who also happens to be female … and black.

The best two words I can think of to embody both these dramas are plausible incongruity. Or incongruous plausibility. These women, and a scattering of men, speak just as do you or I, only more interestingly, as they track their way through mazes of absurdity.

The Dot of “Mrs. California” tries her best to conform to the rules of that preposterous contest. Her best friend, the fiery, divorced, disrespectful Babs — the person who keeps Dot sane (and vice versa) back in their suburban Los Angeles home grounds — wants to cut through all the rules.

During the war, Babs had installed wiring and electrical equipment on Consolidated Liberator B-24 bombers. She now applies that electronic know-how to shorting out the ovens and sewing machines of Dot’s competitors. Dot is not amused. Therein lies the sub-drama. But not the submarine drama. For that, we go back to the winter of 1943 — as related by Doris Baizley here in Greenwich Village in the early spring of 2006.

“I’m a Navy child,” she says, “born in Portland, Maine, in July of 1945. My parents, Rudy Baizley and Mary Dyer Baizley, met in the Navy, and that opening speech in ‘Mrs. California’ is my mother’s story. I think I elaborated a little, but not much. When the play was done in Los Angeles I could hear my mother sighing in the audience.”

Doris Baizley’s mother comes into daughter Doris’s work in another way also, or at least mama’s name — and ancestor — does.

“I’ve been writing plays since the 5th grade on. I used to think I invented plays. I turned all my history lessons into plays. I’d write the names of the characters opposite what they said, and when I started reading published plays, I thought they’d stolen that form from me.”

All that began at the Highland School in Abington, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. Doris Baizley’s first grown-up play, fresh after coming down from Vassar College to Greenwich Village in 1971, was “Mary Dyer: Hanged in Boston,” its heroine the Mary Dyer who was put to death in 1660 — not for changing from Muslim to Christian, but for being a Quaker.

“The Puritans only wanted their brand of Christianity to exist. I found out about Mary Dyer, and that she was in our family, from a book in my grandfather’s study in Hoopeston, Illinois. The Dyers all stopped being Quakers and moved to Illinois as soon as Mary Dyer was hanged.”

Playwright Baizley, in New York with her husband, architect Ed Woll, for the openings of “Mrs. California” and “Shiloh Rules,” made a point of going around to look at her onetime domicile, 126 West 11th Street.

“Nothing has changed. I mean on the inside. On the outside, of course, everything in the Village has changed. Grace Paley” — the brilliant short-story writer — “also lived in that building. She was a big help with ‘Mary Dyer: Hanged in Boston.’ She sent it around to Washington Square Methodist Church, on West 4th Street, with a message: ‘Do the play, do the play!’ ”

They did, or a group calling itself the Jefferson Market Community Players did, under the direction of Lee Worley, another enthusiast. It followed close on the heels of the very avant, very athletic, very exclusive staging of Greek classics at that same venue by Poland’s Jerzy Grotowski. (You had to stand in line in the street to be admitted, eventually, one by one — for Grotowski, not Baizley.)

The script of “Mrs. California” is headed up by a quote from Betty Friedan’s generation-altering “The Feminine Mystique” (1962): “For women of ability in America today, I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous.”

So, Ms. Baizley, have you ever been through the housewife state?

“Oh yeah. I met my husband in California in the ’80s, and wrote the play right before our son Andy was born.”

If someone asked you to bake a cake —

“I could, I could. But I’m in a privileged position. I don’t have to be in an office, 9 to 5. I like to bake a cake, now and then. But the idea of making that my whole life is pretty hard.

“I think I’m a good mother. I didn’t have my son until I was 39. But I felt young. The nurses were all saying: ‘Oh, she’s my mother’s age,’ and I’m saying: ‘I’m too young, I don’t know what to do with a baby.’ ”

The baby is now 22 and an artist. “Having him made me hugely more productive. Once the day-care clock started ticking, I wrote and wrote and wrote.”

Believe it or not, the “Mrs. California” contest is still going on each year in California, 1sponsored by the gas company.

“It’s worse now. It’s all based on looks. No kitchens. No ironing. No skills. Just wear leotards and do aerobics. I did interview one woman who was in it and didn’t win anything. I asked her what she’d learnt. She said: ‘That I’ll never use meatloaf as my main dish.’ ”

The idea for a play about Shiloh — or the reenactment of Shiloh — struck home as Ms. Baizley and her husband were driving through the city of Quebec.

“There were all these guys walking around in red coats with bayonets and all that stuff. It was supposed to be a reenactment of the Battle of Quebec, 1759, Wolfe vs. Montcalm, but had been called off on account of rain so as not to endanger all those antique uniforms.

“That seemed to me funny. Then we saw one guy sitting up on the rocks, smoking a clay pipe, looking out over the landscape. It seemed like he was right back there in 1759. That sort of set up a situation I thought I’d like to see on stage, while also tricking the audience into switching time periods back and forth.

“I didn’t want just to see guys shooting guns, that’s boring, but I knew it had to be the [American] Civil War, because of the issues. How can it be the Civil War without guys shooting guns? With women! Reenacting!”

When she’s back home in her and her husband’s “tiny house in Venice, California,” she’ll go to work on her next project — a commission to write a play about the Minnesota 8, headlined draft-board raiders of the Vietnam era, 1968-’70.

“I think they burned more draft cards than any other group. They were each sentenced to five years. They’re all alive, and I’m going to interview them.”

And their Proudest Moments will be — will have been — for real.

SHILOH RULES. By Doris Baizley. Directed by Michaela Goldhaber. Through April 8 at the Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street, (212) 868-4444.

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