‘Assisted Living’: Connections and transformations

The surprising ways in which people can connect is at the heart of the play “Assisted Living,” written by and starring the husband-and-wife team of Winnie Holzman (Tony nominee for the book of the Broadway musical “Wicked”) and Paul Dooley (co-star of the Robert Altman films “Popeye” and “A Wedding”). The two play all four characters in this work about a fading soap opera actor (Dooley), his girlfriend (Holzman), an adoring fan (Holzman) and her curmudgeonly father (Dooley). The vehicle is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. 

As the story begins, Frank, the actor, is working on his lines and is being cued by girlfriend Emily, who notices a pile of his fan mail. She reads a particularly touching and worshipful letter from Heather, who pours out her heart, exposing her sense of worthlessness and insecurity. Emily is deeply affected by the fan’s pain and urges Frank to respond, but he is dismissive.

Frank has his own problems. He keeps complaining about getting less and less to do on the soap opera. 

“Having been on the show for 36 years,” Dooley explained, “Frank is very cynical. Now he’s finding that the younger, better-looking people coming in are taking over his turf, and he’s being relegated to the sidelines. 

“So, it’s kind of about how a man is declining in his view of himself or in his success.”

In the second scene, we meet Edgar, a crotchety, dissatisfied elderly man living in a senior facility. In comes Heather, his daughter, and it soon becomes obvious that Edgar denigrates her and favors his son. But Heather receives a very understanding reply to her fan letter and is so heartened by the response that she is moved to tell her father that she loves him. The two open up to each other, and Edgar admits that he also watched Frank’s soap opera. He and Heather begin to bond over a discussion of the program, which has gone off the air. 

The third and final scene has Frank, alone, out of work, and contemplating selling his New York apartment. Heather shows up at his door, a completely changed woman. The response to her fan letter has enhanced her self-image, motivated her to improve her appearance and given her confidence. She brings Frank a script she and her dad wrote about what might have happened to the characters had the program survived. At first, Frank is uncaring, but he slowly warms to her interest and her admiration.

Dooley said he and Holzman started the piece some 28 years ago, around the time they got married, then put it aside for a long time. “Every five or 10 years, we’d say, ‘Let’s finish that,’ but we never did. She’d be busy, or I’d be busy. She took about four years to write ‘Wicked,’ different drafts, and she did television shows, and I was off doing my things, and it just didn’t seem to have the window of opportunity until, some time in the last six months, we finished it up.”

As to the title, he said, “It’s not only that the father in the second scene is in an assisted living facility, but, as Winnie and I saw it, it’s the ways in which people assist other people in living.”

Holzman expanded: “You don’t live by yourself. We’re all connected and interconnected, but it’s the ways in which we do connect that are sometimes not what you’re expecting. And I think in the play help comes in ways that are unexpected, but they are almost like little blessings.”

Holzman points to the change in Frank when Heather shows up at his door, not asking for anything. “She brings him something that she wrote, that she wanted him to see, and it lifts him up. It gives him something. … I’m not saying that it takes away all his problems, but she becomes a ray of light in his life at that moment. And it’s a person that he completely dismissed.” 

In Heather’s case, Holzman added, the response to her fan letter meant that somebody noticed her and took the time to say that she mattered. It was a catalyst for her total metamorphosis.

 “I believe in transformation. I believe people can change, but it just happens in very mysterious ways. It’s not always something that you can plan. It’s mystical, and that’s what we’re trying to show in the play”

Holzman, who is Jewish, says her work is influenced by her parents’ sense of social responsibility, a core value in Judaism. “They were very much into helping people achieve equality, in the spirit of tikkun olam, how can I be of service?” 

Holzman and Dooley have injected their script with a great deal of humor, especially in their sendup of soap operas. “My favorite thing is to entertain and have people laugh,” Holzman concluded, “but also feel like they’re touched, like their hearts are touched. If I had that, I would be very, very thrilled with that response.”

“Assisted Living” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, through May 12. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets or other information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to AssistedLivingThePlay.com