Oh, the drama

Two Weeks Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes: "Don't tell anyone," Cherie Vogelstein confides, "but I haven't written it yet."

That's dismaying, given the importance of the event. It's mid-fall, and Snakes is to premiere in New York City at the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual festival of new one-act plays. Despite its Hell's Kitchen location, the theater is one of the top showcases for one-act plays in the United States. Without question, the clock is ticking.

But maybe Vogelstein works best under pressure; she's been up against tight deadlines before. At age 41, the Baltimore-born playwright has credentials that many scribes would envy.

Her work has won praise from The New York Times, and three of her one-acts have been anthologized in The Best American Short Plays. In 1997, her play, Cats and Dogs was one of a group of four plays (including works by David Auburn, who later won the Pulitzer Prize, and Michael Patrick King, a creator of Sex In The City) that won the theater Grand Jury award at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. In 1999, she won the inaugural Oscar Hammerstein fellowship for best emerging playwright. But Vogelstein brushes off any suggestion that she is doing well with her trademark blend of outrageousness and self-deprecation.

"I hate the theater," she says. "The movies are much more fun. Writing for the theater is stupid enough, but writing one-acts takes that stupidity to an extreme. I am achieving in the world's least practical art form."

Perhaps, but it is among the world's most loved art forms. Not every playwright working in New York is as successful as Edward Albee, and not every show that gets staged is a mega-hit on the order of The Producers. Like Vogelstein, most playwrights who carve out a life in the theater perform for perhaps 100 people on a good night. Yet, without them, the art form would be sadly diminished. So there's really very little chance that Vogelstein won't finish her play. Is there?

One Week Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes: "The rehearsal schedule is still kind of up in the air," Vogelstein explains. "Actually, we don't have a cast yet. Actually, I still haven't written the play."

Jamie Richards, who has directed Vogelstein's works for the past decade, sighs when she hears the news. "Cherie likes to change things and write up until the very end," she says. "But it'll get done. It's the miracle of theater."

If Richards seems unruffled, it's because she knows that once she pries Snakes out of the author's hands, the audience will laugh so hard that their mouths may get stretched out of shape. At least, that's the way it always has worked.

"Cherie is very unique in her world-view and completely unabashed in putting it out," says Richards, who likens Vogelstein's style to "the knife under the mattress."

In one Vogelstein play, a job interview turns obscene and surreal. (New York Times reviewer Bruce Weber described this work, Brown, as "an almost painfully dark and funny farce.") In a second, a man decides to leave his wife and manipulates her sister into breaking the news. In a third, a woman systematically separates her new beau from his family and friends.

Often, the humor comes from an absurd contrast between conversational cliches and a character's deepest feelings. In Cats And Dogs, a man tells a blind date that despite his traumatic divorce, he's ready to move on with his life: "The point is, instead of feeling dead, I feel open to potentially new, very upsetting new pain."

As Richards puts it: "Her work is very, very funny and a tiny bit mean-spirited in the best possible way. It's a wonderful critique of society. You're laughing, but you're horrified that you're laughing."

The material in Vogelstein's plays seems especially off-kilter because its author was raised as an Orthodox Jew and still scrupulously keeps kosher. "You might think that these plays were written by some truck driver, and not by a woman raised in this conservative tradition where girls wear skirts down to their ankles and some marriages still are arranged," says Cherie's brother, Bert Vogelstein, who thinks the plays are his sister's way of rebelling.

Some families might be embarrassed by the no-holds-barred quality of Vogelstein's humor. But neither her brothers nor her parents ever have wavered in their support. "My parents come to all my productions," Cherie Vogelstein says. "You know what my stuff is like. It's profane, it's filthy, and there's my father sitting in the audience in his big yarmulke."

Three Days Before the Debut of Her New Play, Snakes:

"So far, I've just written the first act," Vogelstein says. "If you do an article about me, you have to say how neurotic I am."

It's getting harder to argue against that point. But Vogelstein also is charming, funny, full of life, and exploding with personality.

It's when she is excited that her Crab City origins are most pronounced, for she emits a squeal reminiscent of Tracy Turnblad, the heroine of Hair- spray, John Waters' fictional homage to 1960s Bawlamer.

Vogelstein was raised in Pikesville, the youngest of five children and the only girl. ("After four boys, I didn't have the nerve to ask for a change from up above," says her mother, Shirley.) When the baby with the bright red locks finally arrived, Lee and Shirley gave their daughter a romantic name: Cherie Fair. Cherished and Beautiful. (Vogelstein, however, claims that her middle name really stands for "average.")

There is a span of 13 years between Cherie and her oldest brother, and at an early age, the little girl learned that humor - the more shocking, the better - was a good way of grabbing her boisterous siblings' attention.

"That's who's she's talking to in her plays," Shirley Vogelstein says. "Whenever there's an outrageous line, I wonder, `Who was that for? Michael? Kenny?' They are her audience in this world.'"

Cherie Vogelstein's career was launched in the sixth grade, when she wrote My Kingdom For A Hammentaschen (a triangular-shaped pastry) for her elementary school's Purim festival. The play told the Biblical story of Queen Esther, and, like many old Testament tales, it is rife with sex, intrigue and murder. Cherie turned it into a musical comedy: When Esther meets her future husband, the King, the sound system launched into Charlie Rich's "Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world ... "

Needless to say, My Kingdom For A Hammentaschen was a hit.

In 1984, Vogelstein graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the Johns Hopkins University, where she studied with experimental fiction master John Barth. Three years later, she received a master's degree in playwriting from Columbia University in New York.

The Night Before the Staged Reading of Her Newly Revised Play, Variations:

"We're not doing Snakes," Vogelstein says flatly over dinner.

"I got writer's block and couldn't finish the second act. Now we're doing Variations. I originally wrote a version 12 years ago, and now I'm rewriting it. It's a series of intersecting vignettes based on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde. We had a rehearsal last night, but the actors were using the old script."

Vogelstein has spent the day furiously rewriting and editing. She's had just five hours of sleep, and as she pushes her long, mahogany-colored hair out of her face, her eyes are puffy and pale. "I'll be up at least that long tonight," she says. "My husband, Eric, is typing away as we speak."

That would be Eric Weiner, executive producer and a writer of the bilingual children's show, Dora the Explorer. The couple has three children: Zachary, 9; Talia, 7; and Ezra, 3, and Vogelstein's irreverent approach to life and love of practical jokes carries over to her role as a mother.

There's the April Fool's prank that Vogelstein played on the father of one of Zachary's classmates. Vogelstein, a wicked mimic, posed in a phone call as the boys' teacher, and claimed that the classmate had brought a Penthouse magazine to school. "He said he got it from you," Vogelstein told the flabbergasted parent, in her best Yiddish accent.

Vogelstein is one of those people who naturally is funny. Other writers struggle to add jokes to their scripts. Vogelstein struggles to take them out.

"The old script for Variations was: joke, joke, joke, and that made it too sitcom-y," she says. "As I've gotten more experience as a writer, I've started putting more space between the jokes. The material might have fewer laughs, but it's funnier."

Just half-a-dozen years out of graduate school, Vogelstein received the biggest break of her career - and the biggest setback. A full-length play, Misconceptions, was produced Off-Broadway and ran for a month. "I had the opportunity to stage a play without the time constraints, without money constraints. We could have as much rehearsal time as we needed," she says.

But, she hired a former actor as the director, and his lack of experience behind the scenes proved disastrous. "All my life I have consistently, consistently made the wrong career decisions," Vogelstein says. "It was a horrible, devastating experience."

Her method of coping with her depression was characteristically offbeat.

"I started going to Al-Anon, even though there are no drinking problems in my family," she says. "I had heard that it was someplace you could go every day and talk about whatever you wanted, even if it wasn't alcohol-related. It took me a few weeks before I had the courage to open my mouth. They were shocked, disgusted that I would talk about my stupid play when everyone else had real problems. I never went back."

Of course, it's not unusual for a play to flop. But Vogelstein's feelings of failure were magnified by her brothers' extraordinary success.

Oldest brother Bert is a cancer researcher at Hopkins and his name is batted about each year as a contender for the Nobel Prize. Barry is an orthopedic surgeon; Michael is an attorney; and Kenny is a lawyer and dentist.

"My brother, Bert, is the No. 1 scientist in the world," Cherie says. "And I'm sitting on my ass."

By that she means that she is wasting her potential; her annual output is a single one-act play, generally for EST, and she makes very little effort to market her work. The rest of the time, she is a full-time mom of three very lively children.

When pressed, she will admit that she is talented, although, as she points out, talent is no guarantee of success in the theater. "You know the fable of the turtle and the hare?" she asks. "Even though the turtle wins the race, I'd rather be the hare - someone who should win and could win, but falls asleep."

Five Hours Before the Staged Reading of Her Newly Revised and Newly Named Play, Love Is Deaf:

Outside the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the walls are swirled with a baroque graffiti that is oddly beautiful, and forms an intriguing contrast to the interior decor: framed photos of famous EST alumni, including actors Jon Voight, Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver and Sarah Jessica Parker and playwright David Mamet.

The only real rehearsal for Love Is Deaf is scheduled to begin, and Vogelstein obviously is upset. "The scripts are lost," she says. "It's a nightmare. I dropped them off at Kinko's a few hours ago to make copies for the cast, and [her voice rises] THEY LOST THE SCRIPTS!"

The actors begin rehearsing the old script. What else can they do?

But 20 minutes later, Weiner, Vogelstein's husband, rushes in with a box of the precious photocopies. "Whoopee!" director Richards says.

Later, Richards says that she was pleased that the script "was actually typed up, not written in long-hand. That is a triumph."

For all her procrastination, Vogelstein is a perfectionist.

"Cherie is capable of going up to an actor at dress rehearsal and saying, `I want to change this "a" to "the" '" Richards says. "Once, I heard an actor tell her, `You know, we're not VCRs. You can't program us.'"

Wiener recalls his wife's agony at a staged reading for potential backers when she thought the actors weren't doing justice to her dialogue.

"Cherie has a tendency to run into the street in horror," he says. "But at this reading, we were sitting in the bleacher seats, and she couldn't leave, so she tried to climb through the plastic slats, and she got stuck. I could hear the backers asking each other, `Isn't that the playwright?'"

Thirty Minutes Before The Staged Reading of Her Newly Revised Play, Love Is Deaf, and Just Afterward:

The tiny theater begins to get crowded. "Oh man," Vogelstein says. "I really didn't think anyone was going to come."

This time, when the house lights darken and the sound system begins blasting Love Stinks, Vogelstein doesn't scribble furiously in her seat, revising the next scene as the current one is being acted. She doesn't dash into the lobby or bury her face in her hands. Instead, she seems to be enjoying herself. Afterward, when another playwright tells her that her talent is greater than his own, Vogelstein glows. The evening is such a high that she already is thinking that she will have Snakes ready long before the EST's 2004 festival of new one-act plays rolls around.

Absolutely, positively and without a doubt.