If you attend the La Jolla Theatre Ensemble’s production of “The Lightbulb” on Dec. 10 or 11 at the La Jolla Community Center, it won’t be your first exposure to writer Stephen Metcalfe. The La Jolla resident also penned the production-draft scripts for — in case you don’t know, get ready not to believe this — “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and, oh yeah, “Pretty Woman.”
The Internet Movie Database lists Metcalfe under “script revisions, uncredited” for the former film, but contains no mention of the 1990 blockbuster that catapulted Julia Roberts to fame. Metcalfe will get into why later. Right now, he’s discussing “The Lightbulb,” which he describes as a “dystopian drawing-room comedy” in which the hosts of a dinner party try keeping up appearances while the apocalypse rages outside their dilapidated mansion.
“They talk about how magnificent the sunset is and they wonder what’s causing it,” Metcalfe says. “Is it the nuclear mishap in New Zealand? The radiation overload in Russia? All these horrible, horrible things have happened.”
And then, Metcalfe reports, “the unexpected guests arrive. They’re all armed, by the way.
Metcalfe discusses his apocalyptic vision in surroundings that couldn’t be any more non-apocalyptic. Birdsong fills his Upper Hermosa backyard, as bees and butterflies flit about the flowers behind him.
“It’s satire,” he says of the play, “because anybody in their right mind would not be behaving and talking the way these people do. Yet it’s satire that gets serious — in a positive way.”
Metcalfe says he wrote a first draft “I don’t know how many years ago,” but it was only in the last two years that it started taking specific shape.
“I started hearing the voices in terms of global warming and refugees and melting Antarctica,” he says. “All of a sudden, it just seemed so oh-my-gosh.”
The play’s his thing
Most of Metcalfe’s past decade was spent fiction-writing. His first novel, “The Tragic Age,” was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2014. (“The Practical Navigator” followed in 2016.)
“But when I have time, I always focus on these plays,” Metcalfe says, “so to get a reading of this has me focused on the theater again, which it’s really fun.”
According to Metcalfe, he begins every play he writes with its penultimate moment.
“It’s always been the case that the crisis, the climax, of a play is the first thing I see,” he says. “I don’t know why that is, but it’s kind of nice, because I have seen so many writers who don’t know how to finish their work.”
La Jolla Theatre Ensemble co-founder John Tessmer reports that “The Lightbulb’s” cast is just about locked in and will include Dave Florek, Leigh Akin, Todd Blakesley, Mark Anthony Flynn, Gailee Walker Wells and La Jollan Geoffrey Graeme.
“Stephen has been wonderful to work with — very personable, supportive, open and collaborative,” Tessmer says. “I look forward to working with him in the next couple weeks, as we get the staged reading performance up and ready.”
After a fast tally in his head, Metcalfe guesses “The Lightbulb” to be his 14th play. His first few, staged off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club, included 1982’s “Strange Snow,” which became the 1989 movie “Jacknife” starring Robert De Niro. In 1985, Jack O’Brien, artistic director of The Old Globe in Balboa Park, staged Metcalfe’s “Emily.” He followed that up with more Metcalfe: 1988’s “White Linen,” 1990’s “White Man Dancing,” 1995’s “Pilgrims,” and 2004’s “Loves & Hours.”
“They were great at The Old Globe because they helped me develop plays,” Metcalfe remembers. “We would read and listen and discuss.”
Metcalfe said he took meetings with The Old Globe on “The Lightbulb,” but came away with the sense that “they’re a little skeptical about doing a play from somebody who was such a part of it in the ‘80s and, you know, all that stuff.”
Metcalfe listens to how his last sentence hangs in the air and elaborates: “You know, it’s a changing world out there in the theater. I think theater culture right now, and rightly so, is on a different sensibility than that of a knucklehead like me.”
Nobody predicted “Pretty Woman” would become a hit, by the way, much less the gigantic hit it was. (It’s currently enjoying a popular Broadway revival as “Pretty Woman: The Musical” at the Nederlander Theatre.) It all began with a dark screenplay by J.F. Lawton, called “3000,” in which an amoral businessman (Edward) hires a street prostitute (Vivian) for a week in which not a lot of love or comedy ensues.
“The best way to describe the tone of the screenplay is that it ends with Vivian emptying her suitcases full of all the expensive clothes Edward has bought for her,” Metcalfe says, “and, screaming and sobbing hysterically in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, throwing them at his limo as he drives off into the sunset, never to see her again.”
This was not quite the Touchstone/Disney movie that studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg saw it as.
“He was the guy who had the idea of taking this dark, dark screenplay and making it into a romantic comedy,” Metcalfe says. “I can’t imagine anyone but him having that idea. So he hired (director) Garry Marshall and got me involved.”
Julia Roberts, who had just come off “Mystic Pizza” and wrapped “Steel Magnolias,” was already onboard. The male lead was pitched to Harrison Ford, Robert Redford and Sean Connery, whose agents all apparently passed. Metcalfe recalls traveling to New York to help audition Al Pacino, who was in a career slump. Even he passed.
“Then I heard, ‘Oh, we settled for Richard Gere,’” Metcalfe recalls, smiling and shaking his head. “Nobody knew what this thing would become.”
Not receiving the official screenwriting credit didn’t bother him at the time, Metcalfe says.
“I was still very close to the theater, and part of me felt that playwrights don’t take credit for other people’s work,” he says. “Also, I was already working on another project at Touchstone and I was very, very busy.”
Metcalfe accepts the blame for not fighting harder for the credit. In a standard Writer’s Guild inquiry into which screenwriter performed the most work ending up on screen, Metcalfe wrote on his questionnaire: “I think my work speaks for itself.” He says that act of hubris haunts him “a little bit” now because “they developed the musical based on the production draft and didn’t ask me if I had any ideas.”
“And I suppose if I had gotten credit, who knows how much money I would have made,” he adds. “But at the end of the day, I did just fine.”
IF YOU GO: “The Lightbulb” plays 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 10-11 at the La Jolla Community Center: 6811 La Jolla Boulevard. No reservations are necessary, $10 suggested donation.