October 15, 2018

Coming of age in midlife

The main character in the play “The Bells of West 87th” undergoes what could be considered a coming-of-age crisis, albeit much later in life than is usual. Mollie Fein (Cameron Meyer) is awkward, unmarried, unfashionable, approaching 40 and trapped in the midst of her hilariously dysfunctional Jewish family. She has taken over from her parents, who separated four-and-a-half years ago, as the manager of an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mollie’s father, Eli (Robert Towers), remained in Apt. 3E, while his wife, Ida (Carol Locatell), moved into Mollie’s apartment, 3D, right next door. Eli thinks Ida is living on Staten Island with their other daughter, the pretty, happily married Maxine (Dagney Kerr), Mollie’s sibling rival. To maintain this subterfuge and to keep track of her husband, Ida had Mollie install bells with different ring tones on every door and window of Eli’s apartment — hence the play’s title — so that she would always know what he was doing and could avoid running into him in the hallway.

“Believe it or not, a friend’s family sparked the story,” playwright Elin Hampton explained. “I have a friend in New York, and she had told me this story about her parents, and about the way her mother was keeping track of her father with bells, and I thought it was hilarious. And I said, ‘Can I use that?’ She said, ‘Yep, all yours. So, go for it.’ ”

The action gets into gear when Mollie reveals that she has been taking a poetry class, where she met Chris (James Marsters), a man with whom she plans a romantic future. She has invited him to dinner and is slowly letting her parents know that she doesn’t want to continue being an apartment manager, that she wants more out of life, that she’s fallen in love with someone who loves her, and that she might be moving in with him.

“So, when the play starts, and she lets all that be known,” Hampton said, “there’s a tug of war, and her passive-aggressive parents don’t want her to leave. They love her; they hate her; they don’t think much of her; but they’re dependent upon her.” 

She, in turn, needs their love and approval, Meyer observed, adding, “She’s a very morally upright person and wanted to help with the family business and take care of them as they were aging, and, eventually, she figures out that she has to take care of herself, too, like we all do.”

Meyer, who stepped into the role at virtually the last minute when Juliet Landau had to leave the production, is not Jewish, but said she’s had a lot of exposure to Jewish life.

“My parents and I had a lot of close Jewish friends, and in college and since then I’ve had close Jewish friends. My husband’s family is Jewish. 

“I’m just doing the best I can to understand where this character’s coming from and relate to her on a universal level,” she said.

Meyer also said that the role of Mollie, besides being a very funny part, has great rhythms and timing. She views the character as a strong person, even though other characters think she’s a loser.

“I don’t think she is,” Meyer said. “She spent a lot of years taking care of everyone else and never had that chance to take care of her own needs and her own desires, and everyone has to have that chance. Most people do that when they’re in their teens or 20s, and she has to finally do that.”

But she doesn’t do it with Chris, the man she envisioned as her knight in shining armor who would take her away from her crazy family. Chris actually fits in with her parents and is perfectly happy to encourage Ida’s burgeoning brooch-making business and Eli’s ambitions as a magician.

Marsters described Chris as a loving, pure, happy soul who turns out to be of very little use to Mollie. “Chris lost his parents when he was young. They were religious fundamentalists who got drowned while being baptized. 

“To him, anyone with parents is lucky. It doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy they could be. Anyone with parents that are breathing is lucky.”

The actor said that, conversely, Mollie’s parents, especially her mother, need acute attention. “I think, for Chris, to be needed by a mother figure is filling a hole, and so he’s quite happy to step into the role that Mollie, ultimately, happily, escapes from.”

Marsters and playwright Hampton are both alumni of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Marsters said that he was drawn to Hampton’s current project largely because of his admiration for her, citing what he called her ability to combine humor with pathos.

Hampton, who was raised in Conservative Judaism and continues to be somewhat observant, thought her play would appeal primarily to Jewish audiences, until she held readings prior to this world premiere production.

“I had people in the audience who were African-American and Italian and Asian saying, ‘This is my family,’ which really surprised me. So I think there are other ethnic groups that have close-knit families, and I think it is relevant to all these families. 

“I grew up with Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein, and they were my idols. They were the people that I think inspired me as a playwright, so, in my head, it was very much a Jewish-themed play, but, like I say, surprisingly, everybody seemed to find it relevant to their lives, no matter who they are.”

As Ida says in the play, “Normal is what people call families that aren’t theirs.”

“The Bells of West 87th” Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. 90036. Sat., Sept. 7 – Sun., Oct. 13. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m.

Tickets: (323) 655-7679, ext. 100 or boxoffice@greenwayarts.org