An aspiring actress and playwright whose plays looked at the darker side of life was shot and killed during a mugging in a hip area of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Police said Nicole duFresne (search), 28, of Brooklyn, died from a gunshot wound to the chest following the robbery early Thursday in a once-gritty area now home to trendy bars and restaurants.

Her fiance, Jeffrey Sparks, 28, and another couple had just left a bar when they were approached by four or five men, one of whom demanded money, police said.

Witnesses told investigators that one of the men grabbed for the purse of duFresne's friend, Mary Jane Gibson (search), and duFresne intervened, asking, "What are you going to do, shoot us?"

One of the men then fired one shot at her, police said.

The two couples had gone bar hopping after duFresne finished work at about 12:30 a.m. at her new job at a local bar called Rockwood, police said.

At around 3:30 a.m., after leaving another bar called Max Fish (search), the couples were approached by the robbers near Rivington and Clinton streets, police said.

"These two guys kind of ducked out of an alcove. One of them said, 'Give me your money.' I didn't see he had a gun. I didn't understand what was happening," Sparks said.

When he pushed the mugger aside, Sparks said he was pistol-whipped on the face.

Police said they made no arrests in the killing.

The couple, both natives of Minneapolis, moved to Brooklyn from Seattle two years ago and were to be married in October.

DuFresne's father, Thomas duFresne of Palm Beach, Fla., said he and his wife would travel to New York Friday.

DuFresne's Web site describes her as a writer, actor and producer. A graduate of Emerson College (search) in Boston, she was a founding member of the Present Tense Theater Project (search), whose Web site says its goal is "to reflect on the current socio-political landscape by developing new and relevant works of theatre."

According to duFresne's resume, she also acted with the LAByrinth Theater Co. (search) in lower Manhattan, where works of emerging artists are performed.

"Burning Cage," which DuFresne co-authored with her friend Gibson, is about two women in a Boston asylum who are targeted for clandestine brainwashing experiments with LSD and shock treatments. The play toured in 2002 at fringe theater festivals in Canada and the United States.

Her other play, "Matter," is a psychological thriller about an amnesiac who finds that a violent and seductive intruder has taken over her apartment. It was performed at a Brooklyn theater in 2003.

She and Sparks, an online music promoter, were working on a pilot for a food channel.