DOUBLING DOWN WITH JOE DIPIETRO; 2 OF HIS SHOWS OPEN IN AREA.
It's a New Jersey thing: family reunions, ricotta cheesecake, guys and gals searching for true love and marital bliss in today's overly wired world.
Joe DiPietro knows this territory. He was raised in it, after all, as the scion of a resolutely Italian-American clan in Oradell, across the Hudson River and half a world away from Manhattan's gleaming canyons.
The playwright left that world 16 years ago, when he moved to the big, exotic city of ... Hoboken. Today, he resides on New York City's Upper West Side, a perch made possible by his growing stature as one of America's most popular and productive young playwrights.
But in his writing, DiPietro says, he often looks to his New Jersey origins for inspiration.
This weekend, local audiences will get a double exposure of that Garden State worldview when two of the author's shows open on local stages. The Pasadena Playhouse will present the West Coast premiere of ``The Kiss at City Hall,'' while the renovated El Portal Center for the Arts in North Hollywood will christen its new Mainstage with DiPietro's ``Over the River and Through the Woods.''
It is, the playwright says, a mostly benign, unapologetically centrist vision of life.
``I came from a very stable, very nurturing middle-class kind of environment,'' says DiPietro, 38, taking a break between ``Kiss'' rehearsals at a Pasadena coffeehouse.
``I think some critics say (my plays) are very middlebrow or mainstream. Well, that's kind of where I'm from. And that's kind of who my people are, kind of what I enjoy. I don't have huge things to rebel against.''
Apparently, many people can identify with DiPietro's people.
``I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change,'' a briskly paced musical revue about the foibles of modern love, is in its fourth year off- Broadway. ``Over the River,'' an autobiographical comedy about a young man's efforts to break from his family homestead, is in its second year in New York.
``For whatever reason, things of mine tend to strike a universal chord,'' says DiPietro, who's as affable yet deceptively intense in person as his characters.
``I also write comedies, and much of the comedies that are produced by theaters nowadays are very dark comedies. And that's also the stuff that critics celebrate more often than not, for whatever reason. Dysfunctional families, yeah. And 'Over the River and Through the Woods' is a play about a functional family! And these people in 'Kiss at City Hall,' they might be a little less functional, but they're all real people, they're functional people.''
DiPietro describes ``Kiss'' as a bit of a stretch for him, both in the emotional depth he tried to impart to the characters and in the philosophical issues the play touches on.
Its inspiration was a recent legal skirmish involving a famous image of a kissing couple, captured on a Paris street in 1950 by photographer Robert Doisneau. The much-reprinted scene depicts an attractive man and woman locked in passionate, apparently spontaneous embrace, oblivious to the pedestrian flow around them.
The image has become a contemporary romantic icon. But its artistic integrity was challenged in court a few years ago, when an elderly French couple stepped forward to claim that they'd been hired as models by Doisneau to create the staged image. (The trial's outcome is revealed in the play, but don't expect us to spill the beans here.)
When DiPietro read about the controversy, he decided it would make a great hook for a play examining the nature of love. How do we know when we're really in love? How do we know whether anything - photos, movies, plays, our emotions - is real or fake?
Perhaps more importantly, how much does it matter one way or the other? It's a question DiPietro is still turning over.
``I'm actually probably ambiguous on it,'' he says. ``I mean, the play itself ultimately gives all points of view and says it doesn't matter, which probably is my ultimate point of view. And also you could argue that's what all art is. Art is working extremely hard to appear effortless.''
Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, thinks that DiPietro is ``a little unusual among contemporary writers'' in emphasizing the upbeat side of human experience.
``What I admire about Joe's work is that even if the people in the families or the plays are dysfunctional, the plays seem to be about working toward functionalism, working to repair the relationships rather than ignoring the faults in them or wallowing in them,'' Epps says. ``I think his plays have a hopeful appeal to them, and that's one of the reasons for their popularity.''
Additionally, Epps says, DiPietro's wit and dexterity make even his play's rougher emotional passages into ``an enjoyable ride.''
It's been an enjoyable ride, too, for DiPietro, who never figured on a theater career when he graduated from Rutgers University in 1984, intending to study law. After landing a secretarial job with CBS Sports in New York, he rose quickly and spent 10 years writing advertising copy.
Asked what that job taught him about play writing, DiPietro laughs.
``Not much! Actually, probably the one little thing kind of helped me was (that writing advertising) copy was very precise. I found it was very helpful for lyrics, for the discipline of lyric writing. I'm a big cutter at any rehearsals and previews. I also firmly believe that cutting something is the quickest way to improve a play.''
DiPietro's tight writing, plus his penchant for positive thinking already have caught the attention of two venerable theatrical institutions. The Ira Gershwin estate has tapped him to write the book for a ``new'' Gershwin musical, ``They All Laughed,'' which updates and expands the Gershwins' 1926 comedy ``Oh, Kay!'' He's also working on a rewrite of the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ``Allegro,'' and another musical (with composer Jimmy Roberts) based on Doris Dorre's 1985 film ``Men.''
About the only people he hasn't won over en masse are certain critics who've dismissed him as a lightweight. DiPietro admits the criticism sometimes stings, but he's handling it.
``Neil Simon's career, his shows, even when he was successful, he was always dealing with this. I'm fortunate that I have people who are interested in producing me and that I have audiences coming. I think if you start changing to what you think is in vogue, you're dead.''
Which is a much worse place to be than New Jersey.
--What: ``The Kiss at City Hall.''
--Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
--When: Sunday through Feb. 20. Regular performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 5 p.m. only on Jan. 16.
--Tickets: $13.50-$42.50. Call (800) 233-3123.
--What: ``Over the River and Through the Woods.''
--Where: El Portal Center for the Arts, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
--When: Tonight through Feb. 6. Performances at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
--Tickets: $35-$42. Call (800) 233-3123.
2 photos, box
Photo: (1) ``Kiss at City Hall'' playwright Joe DiPietro.
(2) DiPietro's ``The Kiss at City Hall,'' featuring Brian Cousins, left, Robin Riker, Paul Provenza and Sybyl Walker, opens Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Box: THE FACTS (see text)