A kid at heart

Upstart playwright Dylan Campbell has two main influences. Well, three, if you count the stuffed tiger.

First and foremost is Neil Simon. Campbell discovered the Broadway icon after randomly picking a collection of his plays off a shelf while wandering around the Ventura College Library. He took it into the bathroom, started reading Come Blow Your Horn, and couldn’t stop laughing. He has been imbuing his own work with Simon’s signature sense of humor ever since.

But the inspiration that shows up most in Campbell’s screenplays, in spirit at least, is Calvin & Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip about the adventures of a spiky-haired 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

“You find it in my work, almost this ‘the kid with the old soul’ thing,” says Campbell, 29, who grew up in Ventura and now lives in Glendale. “[Calvin] is mature in so many ways, he can talk about different things, but he is still immature in other ways. There is that element of magic and imagination.”

Youthful imagination plays heavily in Campbell’s To Catch a Tooth, which opens April 21 at the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood. It involves two boys who hatch a plan to rob the Tooth Fairy. They set a trap, but end up snaring one of the kids’ dads. Convinced it is actually their intended target in a clever disguise, they grill the father on aspects of his son’s life — none of which he can answer. And what starts out as a lighthearted family comedy then gains a level of gravitas, as the father is forced to confront the fact that he doesn’t really know his own child.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Campbell is also influenced by “serious playwrights,” such as David Mamet.

“As I continue to grow up and learn, I’m definitely attracted to having the weight, so there’s more colors in the spectrum and it’s not so sit-com-y. But,” he adds, “so far, I haven’t written anything that doesn’t have, on some level, that element of humor.”

Campbell began writing long before he knew who Neil Simon and David Mamet were, or even what a theater was. As a kid, he would run around his house with a pocket tape recorder, interviewing everyone from Superman to Rick Hunter, the lead character in the ’80s sci-fi cartoon series Robotech. He wrote short stories and even created his own comic books. But up through his teenage years, Campbell never considered himself a writer — he wanted to be an actor. “I always enjoyed being the ham, being the one to get people going and make people laugh,” he says.

During his senior year at Ventura High School, Campbell made his first strides toward a career behind a pen, participating in a one-act play festival. Still, when Campbell started looking to transfer from Ventura College, his aspirations remained in front of the stage. It wasn’t until he was touring Loyola Marymount University that it hit him. “I realized I had been writing my whole life, whether it was a short story about a dinosaur that comes to the mainland in a Hawaiian shirt or whatever. This is what I’ve been doing all along.”

After graduating from LMU, however, Campbell found there wasn’t a lot of demand for his brand of all-inclusive comedy. “I have a whole stack of rejection letters,” he says. “You’re not a writer until you’ve been rejected at least 100 times.” At the urging of his girlfriend, Campbell entered a monologue competition, where he read a truncated version of To Catch a Tooth. “Everybody loved it,” he says. Afterward, he was asked to join the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, a small, 35-year-old L.A. theater company specializing in the off-beat. The group enjoyed To Catch a Tooth so much they immediately granted Campbell the opportunity to put on a production.

Now with an outlet for his writing, Campbell is developing more ideas. One is another family-friendly comedy about zombies, which he describes as Shaun of the Dead-meets-Brighton Beach Memoirs. And another is slightly more serious — he calls it a “dramedy.”

“A person, whether in life or as an artist, has to grow, adapt, change and discover new things,” Campbell says. “Because if you’re standing still, you’re not growing.”