Jacqueline Wright’s graphic play Eat Me — about a suicidal woman living in squalor who’s brutalized by two rapists — sets off explosions wherever it goes. When it was given a workshop production at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theater in 1998, half the audience left during the performances. When the play was read seven years ago in Hollywood for Theater of NOTE’s Play Selection Committee, one member stormed out saying that he didn’t wish to be in the same room as the playwright.

Wright is quick to add that she’s received enormous support from various art boards over the years at Theater of NOTE, which, after seven years, finally hosted the play’s premiere earlier this month as a “member rental.” This means that the theater allowed Wright to rent the venue at a cut rate, but did not actually produce the play — for reasons having as much to do with its small cast as its content, Wright points out. (NOTE did produce Wright’s play Bing in 2001.) Because of prior scheduling commitments at NOTE, the production of Eat Me moved to the McCadden Place Theater last week.

Eat Me searches with an intense beam of light for some causes of human behavior and misery. With Wright’s grimy, absurdist wit, victim and victimizer start to find traces of shared humanity during their brutal encounter. And though the play suffers from a drift toward sentimental shores, it’s an honest groping for answers that’s been rudely mistaken by some detractors for the cheap dramatization of an ugly thrill.

Wright says that she wrote the play — her third — when she was 26 (she’s now 33). The play includes onstage fellatio, followed by the victim’s apologetic vomiting and a stabbing. She showed it first to her husband, Joe Foster, who, though impressed by the writing, told her, “I don’t know if we can do this.” She then sent it to her mother, who told her it was the best thing she’d ever written. She showed it to director Matt Almos, who told her that Theater of NOTE — with its reputation for adventurousness — was probably the only theater in town that would even consider it. With that idea in mind, Wright joined Theater of NOTE in 1997. For seven successive years, Eat Me was championed by some art board members, and ultimately rejected for production.

Curiously, the most vituperative complaints have come from men.

“These people felt I sat down at my desk and thought, ‘How can I write something evil and mean and bad.’ I think it really comes from the way we attach meaning to things that make us Right and Good,” says the L.A. resident. “I think that’s limiting.”

Eat Me was completed two years after Wright finished her theater studies at CalArts. It’s the second play she produced in two years in which she plays the leading role. The L.A. wing of Ensemble Studio Theater produced her Buddy Buddette, a fantasia about a comic book heroine, last year. But the despondent, brutalized, sodomized heroine of Eat Me is a long way from the high school cheerleading squads and Superwoman costume changes of Buddy Buddette.

Despite or because of its volatility, Eat Me’s first month filled Theater of NOTE with new audience members. “People are asking if they can pay by credit card. These are not our regular audiences. In almost 30 years of doing business, NOTE has never had a credit-card machine,” says Wright.

She adds that there have been groups of Russians throwing money at the stage, and Latinos (one group walked out) and older people. Of particular delight to Wright is how women of all ages have been so receptive to the play.

The lingering and probably unanswerable question is where, in Wright’s soul, did this play come from? Wright was born in Florida, the daughter of a U.S. Navy pilot and an airline flight attendant, which means she lived for fits of time in many corners of America. After her father retired, he eventually became a newspaper publisher in Lebanon, Missouri, where Wright spent her summers following her parents’ divorce. (Those summers provided Wright with some geographic stability and continuity.)

Wright says she doesn’t understand where the play came from — that it just came pouring out. “I don’t edit or censor when I write,” she explains. “Sometimes I don’t even know what’s coming out, or why.”

She says she remains “extremely close” with both parents, though her father’s “kind of mad at me right now.” He wants to fly out to see the play, but Wright has been actively discouraging him.

“If I wasn’t in it, it would be different. It just crosses a lot of lines. The daddy-daughter relationship. His girlfriend came out and she dug it. I told him that our relationship is as healthy as I can imagine and that this would be funky . . . yes, I banned him, basically.”

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