Carlos Murillo and Lisa Portes didn't quite get off on the right foot. "We disliked each other intensely," says Murillo, a playwright, "for no reason other than we'd heard so many things through mutual friends and the New York theater grapevine and each assumed the other was the most unbearable, pretentious ass on earth."
The two had known of each other for years. Portes, an accomplished director, had even staged one of Murillo's plays as a side project while she was in Europe as associate director of The Who's Tommy. But they didn't meet until 1998, when both were involved with the En Garde Arts production The Secret History of the Lower East Side. Slowly, the ice thawed.
Then in his mid-20s, Murillo, the 1996 winner of the National Latino Playwrighting Award, had just been commissioned by the Joseph Papp Public Theater and New York Shakespeare Festival to write a new play. He set out to create something small—a three-character, one-set drama—and as he sketched out the characters he would often call Portes up on the phone and read her bits of the script. As she gave him feedback, Portes fell in love with the story. "I always thought that if we did decide to work together, this would be the script that made the most sense."
Murillo finished Offspring of the Cold War in about a month—an unusual feat, as his other projects had taken up to a year to write. He immediately called Portes, who spent 20 of the 25 dollars in her bank account on a bottle of champagne.
They got married in 1999. Offspring, which was workshopped that year at the Public (twice) and at the Sundance Theater Lab, drifted to the back burner after a stream of polite rejections from various producers. In 2000 the couple moved to Chicago when Portes was offered a position at DePaul; while she taught and worked on student productions, Murillo founded his own peripatetic theater company and saw another play, Schadenfreude, produced in Los Angeles.
Then, last December, they pitched the stalled script to Kristan Schmidt, the artistic director of Walkabout Theater Company. She bit. With Portes directing, Offspring opens this weekend, the couple's Chicago professional debut and their first formal collaboration.
"A marriage is a big enough thing to take on on its own, and now we've been married for three years," Portes says. "We have that other thing under control—let's see if we can work together."
Offspring, set in the 1990s, tracks two characters—Brooklyn neighbors who meet by chance—and an intermittent third as they become entangled in a historical mystery. What seems to be a boy-meets-girl story becomes a wide-ranging exploration of 20th-century world events. Once a simple character sketch, the play has developed into a complex puzzle in which the piles of junk that accumulate on stage—chairs, crutches, a birdcage, the diary of a 19th-century prostitute—propel the story backward and forward in time.
"For me it's like a science project," Portes says. "I'd heard readings and thought, it's a three-character play and it's one set. No, it's really a 27-character play and 13 sets."
"It's a bit," says Murillo, "like staging a Cecil B. De Mille epic with a few rolls of gaffer tape and a gallon of glue."
They look back at their early rivalry with amusement. "That first meeting," says Murillo, "was reminiscent of old western movies where two foes meet on the main drag with their guns drawn. But we managed to charm each other eventually." Now, he adds, they're charming each other "with our guns still safely within reach."
Offspring of the Cold War opens June 28 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 through July 21, with additional performances July 14 and 21 at 7. Tickets are $15; for reservations, call 312-458-0566.