Doyle Headlines 'Stoop' Opening

'Beth Cooper' Novelist Now Lives In Mt. Washington

July 09, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

Larry Doyle's wife says he's funny only when he's talking to someone other than her.

Luckily, he should be talking to hundreds of theatergoers at Center Stage tonight for Stoop Storytelling, the popular stage series featuring Baltimoreans relating their tales of Charm City.

Doyle, author of the Thurber Prize-winning novel I Love You, Beth Cooper, headlines opening night of the 2009 edition, Baltimoored: Summer in the City, A Live Radio Show. (Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley, will take over the top spot Friday night, followed by Wire star Clarke Peters and Rain Pryor, the writer-performer of Fried Chicken and Latkes, on closing night.)

Doyle has also written the screenplay and served as an executive producer for the movie version of his novel, which opens nationwide Friday. (The director is Chris Columbus, who made the first two Harry Potter pictures.)

It should be a heady time even for a 50-year-old, formerly L.A.-based veteran who has won two Emmy awards and one Annie for his work on The Simpsons. In fact, it should be a heady time even for a writer who has had two solo credits on produced original scripts, Duplex and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in an era when solo writing credits are rare for potential franchises like Looney Tunes - and original scripts tend to be regarded as anathema.

But over the phone from a hotel lobby in Tribeca (he planned to attend a "special screening" of Beth Cooper in New York on Tuesday night), he remained refreshingly down to earth, with a dry sense of humor.

"That's Vincent D'Onofrio walking by," he interrupts himself to say, "looking ... kind of ... fat."

Doyle is especially unpretentious about his performing talent. He doesn't think he has displayed any great propensity for off-the-cuff storytelling in his relatively few years as a Baltimorean. He figures he got asked to participate in Stoop Storytelling because he appeared on Aaron Henkin's WYPR show The Signal twice - once when his book came out in spring, 2007, and once when it won the Thurber Prize for American humor last fall - and Jessica Henkin, co-founder of the Stoop series, is Aaron Henkin's wife.

"It might work out just fine," Doyle muses. "I should be able to get some easy laughs about how hot it is in Baltimore."

His wife, Becky, is the one with Baltimore roots. They moved here four years ago when her parents put the family house in Mount Washington up for sale. It appeared to be perfect for the Doyles and their three children, even when you added in (as Doyle says, ruefully), "the $200,000 you had to put into it to 'make it livable.' " Doyle says his stage presentation will "entertainingly, I hope, wander around one of the line items that came up - the thought process that made me decide it was indeed worth it to spend $25,000 for air conditioning in Baltimore, because Baltimore in the summer is, as you know, hot."

"Thought process" is one of the things Doyle does best. His ability to take readers inside the brain of his mentally hyperactive teenage antihero - and the brains of his friends and antagonists - is what turned his novel into a comic tour de force. His performance at Center Stage will take him back to some of the same places as I Love You, Beth Cooper: the Chicago suburbs where he grew up in the 1960s. Back when middle-class homes didn't routinely boast central air conditioning, only movie theaters were properly refrigerated. In suburbs erected on drained swampland, doors and windows left open for a breeze let in swarms of mosquitoes.

"I remember lying on my bed in my underwear at the mercy of the mosquitoes," says Doyle, who received no relief when village elders, in their wisdom, summoned DDT trucks to rumble through the streets twice a week. When that didn't work, they brought in armies of bullfrogs.

These details didn't make it into I Love You, Beth Cooper, even though Doyle set it in Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois (where he graduated in 1976).

Doyle transferred his adolescent feelings into an ultra-contemporary context. His goal was to take "a lot of the standard tropes" for the end-of-high-school comedy and both "send some of them up" and "ground others in real life." For example, "It always bothered me that parents in these movies were always clueless or bad; I thought if I made them relatively cool, it would highlight the goofiness of the son." A son like Denis Cooverman in I Love You, Beth Cooper could happen to anyone.

Cooverman, the captain of the debate team and class valedictorian, declares his love for Beth Cooper, the captain of the cheerleading squad, in that most public and dignified form: the commencement speech. What results is a graduation night that goes from hell to limbo to Paradise Found. In Public Enemies, Dillinger gets out of prison after 81/2 years and tries to make up for everything he missed out on in life in a year or two. In Beth Cooper, Cooverman escapes from his K-12 niche and crams a traditional American teenhood into about 12 hours.

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