"Hold Please" began when playwright Annie Weisman had some politically incorrect thoughts about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
The writer believed that Monica Lewinsky virtually blackmailed Bill Clinton into finding her a job. "It's important to set standards to protect the powerless in [boss-intern] relationships," Weisman, 28, says. "But it's not always the person in power who's doing the exploiting. Young women have a powerful trump card when they get into relationships with powerful men. I think many women are wise to that and use it to their advantage."
"Hold Please" -- a play about office politics between two generations of legal secretaries -- will debut next month at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The production places Weisman among a growing group of important playwrights who have been nurtured by SCR -- one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the country -- including Pulitzer Prize-winners Donald Margulies and Margaret Edson.
In Weisman's sardonic comedy, a male attorney is accused of sexual harassment, though it's initially unclear who is harassing whom. "I know the play will anger some women," says the writer, mentioning several irate audience-feedback sheets after a recent reading of "Hold Please." "But not long after, ... I opened the newspaper, and the lead story was about the missing intern Chandra Levy, who had an affair with a congressman. And I thought, 'This issue is incredibly relevant. It's at the forefront of where we are today.'"
Weisman's feminist identity is as complex as the issues she raises in her play. She refuses to participate in women's playwriting festivals and feels irked when people call her a "woman playwright." "When Sam Shepard writes a male character, you don't call him a 'male playwright,'" she says.
But then again, the petite, thoughtful scribe almost always writes about women. "I am unapologetically interested in creating complicated female characters, because there are so few of them," she says. "It's one of my mandates as a playwright."
Few playwrights -- male or female -- have enjoyed the kind of success Weisman has experienced in the last two years. Since 1999, her play, "Be Aggressive," was produced at La Jolla Playhouse; "Hold Please" was commissioned by SCR, and two new commissions are in the works from the Mark Taper Forum and A.S.K. Theater Projects.
Before her career exploded in 1999, Weisman hadn't much professional theater experience. As a child, she hoped to become an actress, but auditioned in vain for school and community theater roles. "I just wasn't [talented]," she says.
After graduating from Williams College in 1995, she went to work as an administrator at the Taper, where she kept her playwriting habit under wraps. "I wasn't sure I was any good," says Weisman, who nevertheless used the job as a kind of drama graduate school. She hung around technical rehearsals, viewed previews and volunteered to drive prominent writers around town. By night in her Fairfax area apartment, she wrote her first full-length play, "Be Aggressive" -- about a Jewish teenager who lives in a WASPy California town and uses cheerleading to cope with the death of her mother.
One impetus was Weisman's own childhood in the beach town of Del Mar, Cal.; like her protagonist, she also felt cut off from Jewish community and practice. "I didn't have any Jewish friends," she confides. "The only bar mitzvah I ever went to was my brother's. I wasn't eager to embrace my Jewish identity because it made me different, and the last thing a teenager wants to feel is different."
The cheerleading squad, with its uniform chants and movements, provided Weisman with a place she felt she belonged. It also provided a series of rituals that helped the non-observant Jewish teenager cope with the difficult years of adolescence.
The "Be Aggressive" heroine feels an even more intense connection to cheerleading. "Her Jewish family has moved to California, and they've jettisoned whatever connection they had to tradition," Weisman says. "Then, when tragedy strikes and there's the yearning for faith and religious community, there's nothing there. So what takes its place is cheerleading."
Weisman has noticed a similar phenomenon among non-observant Jews in Los Angeles. "So many lapsed Jews are drawn to yoga, Feng Shui and New Age spirituality," she says. "People need to fold into something, and in the absence of ancient religious ritual, it can be something else." She's tackling the issue head-on in her latest play, an as-yet untitled piece set at a Jewish New Age retreat.
Weisman prefers Judaism. Since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, she has regularly attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple services with her grandmother. It's a way for her to connect not only with Judaism but with her family history: (Weisman's great-grandparents were founding members of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and her grandfather and grandmother both served on the board.)
"Going to services gives me the sense of folding into something that's ancient," she says. "It's a nice balance to the struggle of writing and working in the theater.
"Hold Please" opens Sept. 21 at SCR. For tickets, call (714) 708-5555.