DOG MOUTH | Written and directed by JOHN STEPPLING | Presented by PADUA PLAYWRIGHTS PRODUCTIONS and EVIDENCE ROOM | At EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd. (213) 381-7118 | Through February 17

anne fishbein

John Steppling still directs his own work, still dons the black boots, jeans and large belt buckle that dressed his bad-boy image throughout the ’80s and ‘90s, when critics dubbed the former heroin addict and Hollywood High School graduate “L.A.’s playwright” and his imitators‘ literary style as “Stepplingesque.” And though his once close-cropped hair has grown back along with a beard, the accompanying cigar (with which he once appeared to be aping David Mamet) still makes an appearance during a rehearsal for Dog Mouth, Steppling’s first full-length play to be produced locally in more than a decade. (The play was presented in London last year after being staged as a workshop in the Mark Taper Forum‘s New Works Festival, and now receives its U.S. premiere at Evidence Room.)

At age 50, Steppling moves with a boxer’s grace, but there are signs of aging — a belly that spills out ever so slightly over that large belt buckle as he lounges across three seats in the bleachers, while his piercing eyes are framed by a few wrinkles that sneak out from behind polarized glasses. And though the tattoos on his arms and his body-builder‘s physique are masked by a flannel shirt, the aggregate effect of his costume and posture is as cool as ever.

Like everyone else, John Steppling has grown older. The question remains, after almost four years away from L.A. — in London, Paris and Krakow, Poland (where he currently a resides) — has Steppling grown up?

He was scheduled for a 10 a.m. radio interview last week at KUSC’s downtown studios. According to the receptionist who greeted him, Steppling mistook the interview time for 9 a.m. He showed up at 9:30, only to find the radio station almost empty. Evidently annoyed, by 10 a.m., and to the astonishment of KUSC staff, he had left. Steppling had accomplished the remarkable feat of being both early and late at the same time.

The playwright‘s last big Hollywood assignment was in 1997, as staff writer for the ABC remake of the British crime drama Cracker. “When that show got canceled, everyone else on the staff got picked up right away, and I didn’t,” Steppling admits. At 46, his age was among the mounting impediments to his future career in Hollywood.

“If there is a reason I left L.A., it‘s that I found here an oppressive climate for artists, a place that never really took its art that seriously,” he says. Yet even among his jobs in London was that of story supervisor for a BBC cartoon series.

“I tried to sell out,” he admits wryly. “I never got the knack of it. Maybe there’s something in the DNA of the sentences I write that puts people on edge.”

Not only his sentences put people on edge. When he was 30, for instance, Steppling had a child with a 15-year-old named Natasha, which aroused some public indignation. Natasha and Steppling split up when their son, Lex, was only 3, but there‘s no doubt Lex changed his father’s life. If Steppling has grown up at all, it is primarily because of his son, for whom the playwright has made a point of being always present — perhaps to redress issues of his own broken family, and what Steppling has described as his father‘s perennial absence.

The affection between John and Lex Steppling, now 19, is obvious at the rehearsal of Dog Mouth, in the form of warm pats and constant conversation. Almost two decades after she first knew him, Natasha — just married to a different man — also attends the rehearsal, as does Steppling’s new wife, Anna, a svelte 22-year-old Polish university student. The rehearsal could be a cauldron for soap-operatic stresses, but instead the mood is jocular and personable, a curious mix of machismo and sweetness, like being with an eccentric Italian tribe — hip and cuddly at the same time. The rehearsal contains a solar system of planets orbiting their sun (i.e., the playwright-director) as all watch two characters on the stage: a 22-year-old pregnant woman who crouches by a railroad track that stretches across a desert, and the grisly older drifter who knocked her up, looming at a distance. She keeps saying she loves him. He keeps turning away.

Years ago, Steppling says, when Natasha was pregnant, he belonged to the informal cult of compulsively macrobiotic vegetarians, fretting whether, on a given day, he should eat long grain or short grain rice. “It was crazy,” he admits, “but I felt great.” Today, lunch arrives at the theater from Woody‘s Barbeque, one of the aspects of Southern California that Steppling says he really misses: “The barbecue pits built before 1971 don’t conform to the same building codes that they do now,” he explains before tearing into some ribs. “So when they cook the food, you get over 30 years of smoke and grime and filth coating it, making it succulent, delicious.”

As they eat, Steppling tells Natasha, mid-slurp, how beautiful she looks in her recent wedding pictures. Lex slides into an easy conversation with his new stepmother, only three years older than he is, before leaning over to his father and, as though to a child, pointing to a dollop of barbecue sauce clinging to his dad‘s beard.

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