“This is a story that could only take place in Santa Cruz,” laughs Steve Lyons, whose play, The Mystery Spot, premiered recently at Sacramento’s California Stage.
The comedy revolves around an everyman hero named Dingo, who majors in women’s studies at UC Santa Cruz so he can pick up chicks. He carries around a book of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, even though he has never read it, as a babe magnet.
Dingo becomes a tour guide at the Mystery Spot to fund his womanizing, gets a girlfriend and meets Plath, who has been sent back to earth to deal with the despair she feels about her life. In fact, the hero is the only one who can see Plath, and that's because he is the only virgin in the play.
Lyons lives in Berkeley, but he and his almost-alter ego, Dingo, are both from the small town of Oroville in California’s Gold Country, and both felt very “out of place” when they left to enter college. The play’s heroine, Liz, complains, “Sometimes his English is so primitive. He’s, like, from some redneck town. He’s not my type.”
“When I started at Berkeley, not only did I not know what a Jacuzzi was, I couldn’t pronounce it,” the playwright admits. “I was suddenly with people from rich backgrounds.”
Echoes Dingo to his roommate, “I’m starting to think I’ll never feel at home here at UCSC. These students have, like, salad spinners. I’ve never even seen a salad spinner before. In Oroville, we don’t spin our salads. What’s going on? Who are these people?”
So why wasn’t Lyons' play, which took first place in the 2010 Actors' Theatre of Santa Cruz Full Length Play Contest, produced in Santa Cruz?
“We were going to do a workshop production at the theater, even lined up the director," he says. "Then I got a call saying, ‘We just went bankrupt. We’re not going to exist anymore.’”
And then there's the fact that it's just-plain difficult to break into the industry.
“Do you know how hard it is just to get someone to read your play?" Lyons said. "I’ve passed it around the Bay area. But plays usually end up in the trash can or at the bottom of a mail box. The California Stage does a lot of new work by playwrights who don’t have a national name. Outside of New York, they are one of the few companies that does, and on a zero budget.”
Lyons recalls “cornering a literary manager, who was actively ignoring me, and asking him how an unknown playwright could get a play produced. He told me that it wasn’t an artistic decision; it was an accounting decision. Plays need to have money attached to them, like a grant.”
So why the Mystery Spot, that local tourist attraction that claims to be a place where the laws of physics and gravity do not apply?
Lyons has been mystified by it ever since he was a kid. “I have wanted to set a play there since 1998. Where can you get better entertainment for $5?”
He's also mystified by the many Santa Cruzans who haven't visited the spot, which could be likened to New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty.
“You have a cosmic vortex in your backyard and you haven’t been to it? I have read all the scientific literature, but when I go there, I still feel like I’m in a warped gravity field.”
Lyons mentions that UCSC Psychology Professor Bruce Bridgeman has written an academic study on the Mystery Spot’s pendulum. Every year, Bridgeman takes his students to the tourist attraction to demonstrate how the human brain works.
“When I was doing research for the play, I talked to the employees at the Mystery Spot. They are true believers,” says Lyons. “Some of it is optical illusion, but some of this we can’t explain.”
It's the perfect magical place to conjure up Sylvia Plath, who helps the main character with his troubled love life.
The play takes a whimsical approach to women’s studies, so Lyons decided, with some trepidation, to send it to the UCSC professor of feminist studies and history, Bettina Aptheker. As the first lecturer in the University’s Women Studies Department in 1980, she has helped build the program into one of the country’s most influential feminist studies courses.
“She wrote me back,” Lyons remembers, “and said, ‘It’s a hoot!’ She wasn’t offended. That was my stamp of approval.”
In reality, Lyons’ wife has a degree in women’s studies from UCSC. He said that not unlike the character Dingo, he was “desperately single" when he met her. He was at a party when one of his friends went up to him and said, “The woman of your dreams is standing by the refrigerator.”
“I went up to her, and within a minute, she turned her back on me,” the playwright remembers. “Then three years later, I was at a New Year’s Eve party, and she, ‘the woman of my dreams.’ came up to me.” They have lived happily in a parallel universe ever since.
Does the play have the same happy ending? By the end of the play, Plath tells Dingo the secret to what women want. She also finds a body to inhabit so she can stay in Santa Cruz and, for the first time, enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
And what about this photo that publicizes the play? Lyons would like readers to know that he is the one who slapped the “Mystery Spot” bumper sticker on the model’s backside.
The Mystery Spot will play Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until April 10 at the California Stage in Sacramento.