By Michael Aushenker
Santa Monica Playhouse co-artistic director Chris DeCarlo can hardly believe it, but here he is directing Jerry Mayer’s comedy “Aspirin and Elephants” again, a quarter century after helming the play’s debut on the very same stage.
“It was a fun piece of theater [and] the author came back and updated the material,” DeCarlo said.
Mayer’s cruise-ship comedy centers on a wedding anniversary trip in which a woman and her parents all find their relationships on turbulent waters.
DeCarlo said the play has been a success for Mayer because everyone can relate to the ill-fated voyage, stuck-on-a-cruise-ship-in-paradise premise.
For Mayer, it started with a real-life trip he took with his in-laws and his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, exaggerated for comedic effect.
“I was on a cruise once and that’s exactly what happened,” Mayer said. “Both marriages were having trouble. It’s a kind of interesting story and it really worked.”
“Aspirin and Elephants” has gone on quite the journey since debuting at the Fourth Street Theater in 1986. In 2002, Jack Klugman played the father character in a Kansas City production. Recently, it’s been translated into German.
For its most recent iteration, Mayer didn’t have to go far to update its timeless comedy.
“I went from a ‘typewriter’ to an ‘iPad,’” Mayer said, chuckling. “It was quite easy to update. … “There’s a lot of good humor in it, but it’s real. It’s funny. It really held up.”
DeCarlo likens Mayer’s work to “Neil Simon, in terms of the humor and human drama,” but Mayer’s writing credits are formidable and impressive in their own right.
As a freelancer, Mayer sold telescripts for produced episodes of “All in the Family,” “Mary Tyler Moore” and “M*A*S*H*,” and he later became a story editor and writer on yet another 1970s Emmy-magnet, “The Bob Newhart Show.” In the 1980s, Mayer worked as executive producer of “The Facts of Life” and also contributed to “Punky Brewster.”
As TV work waned by the late 1980s, Mayer’s passion for writing plays intensified.
“I thought it would be an adventure to write stuff that people would have to pay to see,” he said.
Often building plays on autobiographical anecdotes, Mayer finds live stage gives him the freedom to personalize his comedy in ways he couldn’t with feature films, where other scribes are brought in for rewrites. “And even with television [that happens],” he said, “although, with television, at least you’re getting paid for it.”
Mayer’s upcoming play for 2014, “One Foot Out the Door,” has, as its subtext, a message of “don’t’ get divorced so fast,” he said, believing that contemporary couples quit too soon after hitting speed bumps in the marital road.
About two years ago, he premiered “Black and Bluestein” at Santa Monica Playhouse. The play, set a week after the Kennedy assassination in 1963, found inspiration from a period when Mayer lived in St. Louis.
Decidedly less autobiographical and more ambitious was his riff on French actor Maurice Chevalier and German native Marlene Dietrich: “Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical.”
Currently living in Pacific Palisades, Mayer says Santa Monica Playhouse is the ideal venue for his work.
Mayer, whose wife Emily produces his plays, often finds himself tiptoeing on egg shells around family members when coming up with these pieces. For that first play, “I had to get permission from my mother-in-law, because it had to do with her having an accident when she was 16.”
Likewise, Mayer was concerned how his brother-in-law might feel about “Aspirin” — ex-brother-in-law, to be precise. Like the sparring couple in “Aspirin,” the real-life counterparts were kaput by the time Mayer’s play hit the stage. The play doesn’t paint him in a good light, “but he loves it because he’s in the spotlight,” Mayer said.
See “Aspirin and Elephants” at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through March 16 at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $15 to $29. Call (310) 394-9779 or visit santamonicaplayhouse.com.