Jerry Mayer believes in dreams.

Back in 1966, he was deep in the family's St. Louis construction business when he sold a script for "McHale's Navy."

That's all he needed. He packed up his three children and wife and headed to Hollywood to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

And he did it.

Mayer wrote scripts for "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H," and "The Bob Newhart Show."

Then, one day, he joined a playwriting group. A new dream was born.

"I liked it so much because I didn't need anyone's permission," he said, talking from his Los Angeles-area home.

"There were no network execs, no actors who wanted to do their own writing."

Mayer, now 79 and retired from his last studio job as executive producer on "The Facts of Life," went after writing plays with the same gusto with which he had pursued television writing.

His play "2 Across" opens at Invisible Theatre next week. It is one of eight plays he has written and had produced; he's working on his ninth.

And, like most of his works for the stage, bits and pieces of his life are woven into "2 Across."

"The play got started because a good friend of ours does the crossword puzzle every Sunday in an hour or less," said Mayer.

"I had fooled around with crosswords but always gave up on them. She was feeling superior, I was feeling inferior, so I started fooling around with the concept."

"2 Across" is about a man and a woman who meet on a subway train at 4 a.m. (Mayer took a trip to San Francisco and hopped a BART train at that hour to make sure it is plausible that two people could be alone on the train at that time - it was).

They are both working on crosswords - she is focused and precise, he is the opposite. When the crossword becomes too much for him, he turns to the sports page. She takes him to task, and a ride that sees deep changes in both of them begins.

On the face of it, it's a comedy. But Mayer strives for something more than a laugh.

"I always have to have a serious base in my comedy," he said.

"In '2 Across,' the woman is a mother of a 17-year-old kid who dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. I wanted a statement about how terrifying it is to have a child in Afghanistan or Iraq. This loose cannon in the play was helping her through it, and it let me make this statement: How would you like your child to die in a war? The play allowed me to make a statement about things that are important to me."

Mayer prides himself on creating characters that are believable.

"It's about two real people," he said.

"They are not just arguing about crosswords; it's about a lot of things. Crosswords are subtext that allow a lot of laughs and ways of making points about real life."

Television is behind Mayer now, but he remembers what it is like. He loved it, but playwriting is much more gratifying, he said.

"With plays, you can keep making improvements, fix mistakes or add a laugh if you need to," he said.

"In television or movies, it's too late. Plays are so much more alive."

If you go

"2 Across"

• Presented by: Invisible Theatre.

• Playwright: Jerry Mayer.

• Director: Gail Fitzhugh.

• When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; opens 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 28. There's an additional 3 p.m. matinee Nov. 20, and no performance Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25.

• Where: Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.

• Tickets: Preview, $18; regular performances, $25. Half-price tickets available one-half hour before curtain, subject to availability.

• Reservations/information: 882-9721.

• Cast: Maedell Dixon and David Alexander Johnston.

• Running time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.