Small Casts Large Casts Short Plays MusicalsNovels

For further information, please contact Jonathan Lomma at WME Entertainment byemail (jdl@wmeentertainment.com)
or write to Mr. Lomma at WME, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, N.Y., 10019

DPS: Dramatists Play Service, BPP: Broadway Play Publishing, SF: Samuel French Inc.

Large Casts

Big Bill (2003)

8m, 1 w; single fluid set, BPP

 

This is an attempt to dramatize the life of the gay tennis champion Bill Tilden. One of the first “stars” to be celebrated for his athletic prowess, and one of the first athletic entrepreneurs who attempted to publicize himself and the game with books and articles, Tilden was primarily responsible for making tennis a popular pastime all over the world. He himself rose to the top of his profession, establishing and breaking many records, before he lost his grip, as he himself might put it. He began to respond actively to sexual impulses which he had long sublimated into his superb game. He was finally sent to jail twice for molesting young boys before dying forgotten and almost alone.

I saw elements of tragedy in Tilden’s rise and fall, and by staging his story in a kind of abstract tennis stadium, with four ball boys serving as fans and friends, as well as stage hands and a pseudo-chorus, I hoped to give it a kind of theatrical ingenuity, and so avoid the kind of traps that come with what Hollywood calls a “bio-pic.” I also saw a challenge in writing a play about tennis, a favorite sport of mine, without ever having to show an actual game on stage. Mark Lamos directed, and John Lee Beatty designed, the initial production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then at Lincoln Center, where it was beautifully produced by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten. John Michael Higgins played Tilden with style and élan, David Cromwell and Stephen Rowe played the mature male roles, the various Ballboys played various youths, and and Margaret Welch played all the women.

 

Whether or not this play subscribes to the traditional definitions of tragedy, I must confess I personally found this production extremely moving. Not all the critics were so impressed, however. I fear that the subject – a gay tennis player who goes to jail for being a child molester – doesn’t appeal to enough people to give this play many future productions, and I’m also afraid that the gay community, which does so much these days to keep the American theatre alive and kicking, had decidedly mixed feelings about this one. Still I harbor hopes that someday Tilden’s story – which is so rich and sad and finally so redemptive – will be told, if not by me than more effectively by someone else.

Far East (1999)

3 m, 1 w, 1 female “reader”, 2 on-stage assistants of either sex, 1 percussionist-musician; BPS

 

This play has four major roles, but also incorporates a supporting cast as it makes use of several devices from the Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatres. Here we have the “Reader”, probably to be played by an Asian-American woman, who narrates certain events and sometimes enters into them. The play also calls for two black-garbed ,and therefore “invisible”, stage hands, who change scenery and bring on props in full view of the audience. Far East also needs a musician who provides live musical accompaniment and exotic sound effects along the way.

The initial production of the play took place at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. with Scott Wolfe, Bill Smitrovitch, and Linda Emond playing the leads. It was directed by my friend Dan Sullivan. The play then moved promptly to Lincoln Center with Sullivan still directing,. It landed in the same theatre, now called the Mitzi E. Newhouse, where he had directed my Scenes from American Life over twenty-five years before. The New York cast of Far East consisted of Michael Hayden, Bill Smitrovitch , Connor Trinnear and Lisa Emery. The scenery was designed by Tom Lynch who provided several gorgeous Japanese backdrops.

The plot of Far East echoes, of course, Puccini’s "Madame Butterfly" and James Michener’s "Sayonara," and I suspect many other tales about American military men falling in love with Japanese women. It is somewhat reflective of my own experience as a Naval Officer when I was stationed in Japan in the mid-Fifties, and its subplot, which deals with another kind of then-forbidden love, also is based on actual events which occurred at the naval base where I was serving. One might argue that by calling for such exotic and unusual staging devices, I am trying to distance the audience – and maybe myself - from the strong emotions evoked by the play, but they also enabled us to evoke an exotic and unfamiliar environment on stage, effects which contribute to its theme. These devices also enabled us to tell a complicated story swiftly and efficiently, even to put a stylized golf game on stage.

Far East was ultimately produced more realistically by Jac Venza for "Great Performances" on Public Television,, again carefully directed by Dan Sullivan. The play has also had good runs at several regional theatres.

Indian Blood (2006)

(5 m, 3w), single fluid set, BPP

 

This play took shape over ten years ago as a section of a novel I was trying to write about my four grandparents, not long after I had become a grandparent myself. The first half of the book ultimately became the play Ancestral Voices, which is presented as a kind of chamber play, while Indian Blood morphed into a short story to be promptly rejected by The New Yorker.

When I finally got around to turning it into a play, I discovered it required a larger cast than is normally the case in my plays. I frankly doubted that it would find a production. But Primary Stages, which had had some luck with my revised Fourth Wall and my pair of one-acts called Strictly Academic, was willing to take it on, especially since my friend and several-times collaborator, Mark Lamos, was willing to direct it. John Arnone, the designer, with a nod to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, provided a generalized background and a number of bentwood chairs to be moved around as needed through the play’s many locales. He also conveyed the special sense of the city of Buffalo both in winter and summer through subtly tinted slide projections made from old postcards and an occasionally projected snowfall. John Gromada also thickened the stew with subtle background music and sound effects, such as the rattle of tire chains on a snowy road.

 

The plot of the play might be summarized as the story of an adolescent boy trying to stretch his wings in a large and traditional family. We rehearsed and opened in the summer, a time which enabled us to garner an unusually able ensemble of actors, all of whom deserve to be listed immediately: Charles Socarides played Eddie, Jeremy Blackman his jealous cousin, John Mc Martin and Pamela Payton-Wright his grandparents, Jack Gilpin his father, and Rebecca Luker his mother. Katherine McGrath and Matthew Arkin played everyone else. Rebecca Luker, a top-flight soprano, managed the Herculean task of modifying her voice into that of a competent amateur when she sang Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to” at the family piano, and the sense of a talent suppressed made the moment all the more effective.

 

Indian Blood went over well with audiences and most reviewers, though it evoked a cynical shrug from the New York Times which found it all a little too Normal Rockwell. The play won the Outer Critics award at the end of the season, and seems to be continuing its life in high schools and community theatre productions. The process of finding the right form for this material, and then working on it with Mark Lamos, the actors, and designers, and feeling it connect with audiences at 59 East 59th St, a small, wonderfully cozy theatre space, gave me one of the most fruitful experiences in my career.

 

Overtime (1995)

6 m, 3 w, single set DPS

 

This play, subtitled a modern sequel to The Merchant of Venice, is based on what I fast learned was a false premise, namely that most people in the audience would be familiar with Shakespeare’s play. They weren’t, or if they were, they didn’t want to admit it. For me, this was the first Shakespeare play I had ever read, and it blew me away. Turning to it again in my autumn years, reworking its many characters and picking up the threads of its complicated plot, I had fantasies of creating a comic world which took on the biases and prejudices raised by Shakespeare and resolved them in a contemporary way. In the play, a kind of social healing is supposed to occur “over time”.

We opened Overtime in the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, directed by Nicholas Martin. Audiences there, of course, seeing my play in their lovely “wooden O”, were already accustomed to and familiar with Shakespeare, and seemed to enjoy my riffs on his work. We then moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club, with a simpler set and a somewhat different cast. Joan Mc Murtry played a party-giving Portia, Robert Stanton, a villainous Salerio, and Nicholas Kepros, repeated his role as a melancholy Shylock. A large supporting cast backed them up.

Before we opened, I had several interviews with Jewish magazines where I crowed proudly about rehabilitating Shylock and liberalizing Portia , both of whom, in the end of my play, intend to marry. But the New York Times review was vitriolic and our poor actors had an uphill battle against mostly bad reviews for the rest of our run. It’s a tricky thing to rub up against a masterwork, and trickier still if the audience won’t go with you, especially if their main newspaper says they shouldn’t bother.

I had hoped that my play, with its large cast and easy parts, might have some future life in high schools and community theatres, but few high school curricula include The Merchant of Venice these days because of its problematic anti-Semitism. Looking the play over now, I still find my play fresh and funny, but of course I’m prejudiced.

 

Richard Cory (1976)

5 m, 2 w (minimum); fluid set. SF

 

I originally titled this play Who Killed Richard Cory? but if Samuel French tries to sell you this outdated version, tell them you prefer simply Richard Cory. The original play was produced at the Circle Rep, a cozy little theatre on Sheridan Square run by Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason. (I discovered during previews that the director, who wasn’t around much, was simultaneously directing another play at Playwrights Horizons.) For whatever reason, the play didn’t do very well with the critics.

 

I changed the title to simply Richard Cory when I revised it the Williamstown Theatre Festival ten years later as a vehicle for the actor Christopher Reeve. In this case, without an intermission and with a charismatic star, the play did much better, though on opening night we lost power and had to quit halfway through. The critic from the Boston Globe announced he’d review it anyway and proceeded to pan it.

 

The play is, of course, based on the well-known poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, which is read, or used to be read, in every high school in America. It also became a song by Simon and Garfunkle. I approached the story by turning to the episodic form I had experimented with in Scenes from American Life, where members of the cast play many parts. In contrast, the title character of Richard Cory himself is played by one actor alone, dramatizing the fact that he is doomed to play only one role throughout his life.

 

Richard Cory is done quite a lot in high schools, not so much in colleges, and never in New York, though the musical version, written by Ed Dixon, has had some success in Texas, New York, and elsewhere around the country.

 

Scenes from American Life (1971)

4m, 4w (minimum); fluid set. SF

 

This was my first success in New York, produced at Lincoln Center in what was then called the Forum theatre. It earned me my first and only Drama Desk Award, though at the ceremony where I received it, I was taken aside and told that the award was not really for me but rather for Jules Irving and the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, which was in trouble at that time.

 

My play had had troubles of its own along its circuitous journey before landing in New York. It began in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, under a workshop program run by Boston University. It moved on to a two-week run at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, spent another week at the Kresge Auditorium at M.I.T where Lillian Hellman, who happened to be teaching there, recommended it to Lincoln Center. At each of these three of these productions, the original director was fired and a substitute brought in at the last minute. At Lincoln Center, the replacement director turned out to be a young actor from the repertory company named Daniel Sullivan, who replaced the set, revised the musical accompaniment, called for different costumes, and went on to become one of the most distinguished directors in the country.

 

The play possibly had caused so much difficulty for directors because I was experimenting with a form which I had picked up from the musical revues, such as New Faces or Lend an Ear, which were popular when I was in college. I made it an assemblage of interconnected scenes, with a vague through-line connecting them, where the actors are to play many different types of roles. Jered Barclay, one of the earlier directors, described it as a Stanislavskian vaudeville. Whatever it was, it appealed to actors along the way, and many talented ones were involved in its awkward trajectory to New York. Rue McLanahan and Michael Moriarty among others played in it at Tanglewood, while Christopher Walken, James Broderick, Herb Foster, and Martha Henry took various parts when we arrived in New York. Patricia O’Connell managed to survive two out of three productions. After all was said and done, the play’s run was extended at Lincoln Center, and went on to be performed in many regional theatres over the next few years. Ten years later, I refined its collage-like form in The Dining Room.

 

The underlying theme in Scenes is that of a fading establishment culture, set in a fading Buffalo, New York, which attempts to respond to the changing times, a motif and setting I have continued to explore in several other plays over the years. Because this play written during the Viet Nam War, it is peppered with scenes suggesting an encroaching fascism occurring in our country in response to the fervor of protest during that time. This paranoid element gave the play a juicy sense of threat and menace at the time it was written, but it may seem dated nowadays – or, on the other hand, maybe not.

The Snow Ball (1991)

8m, 8w, (minimum) fluid set;. DPS

 

As with my play Human Events, this is an attempt to translate one of my novels onto the stage. Jack O’Brien, then the Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, had suggested that I trying painting “with a larger palette”, and since my book had not made much of a splash, I turned it into a play. The plot has to do with refurbishing a lovely old hotel ballroom in downtown Buffalo. The community wants to celebrate the occasion by bringing back a couple, who in their youth were the toast of the local dancing school.

O’Brien was the director, Graciela Daniele the choreographer, and we found an attractive cast to be put through their paces. The play opened at the Hartford Stage, played in San Diego, moved on to the Huntington Theatre in Boston. The reviews were pretty good , except for the Boston Globe, which let me have it. Up until that point, there had been serious talk of our coming into New York, but that sour notice apparently did us in. There were other reasons, too. Michael Bennett, who incidentally also came from Buffalo, had recently dropped a show called Ballroom which was also about dancing, and perhaps the subject was considered too remote for the disco generation which dances so differently.

 

The Snow Ball is occasionally revived in regional theatres, but its large cast and complicated production values make it expensive to do well. You’d think high schools would take a crack at it since it’s so much about young people and romance, but I suppose the adulterous behavior of the hero in his adult years would wreak havoc with the local P.T.A. Several people have suggested my turning it into a full-fledged musical. I admit I once toyed with the idea of anchoring the evening in the music of Irving Berlin, since no one has written better songs about dancing than he. But since The Snow Ball purports to be about a culture which expresses its erotic instincts primarily through what we now call “couple dancing”, I suspect the characters would feel less compelled to dance if they could burst into song,, so the story would lose some of its essential steam.

The Wayside Motor Inn (1977)

4m, 4w; single set. DPS

 

Here’s a play which succumbed to the influence of the ingenious English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who blithely plays with the limitations of the stage by limiting them even more. For example, Ayckbourn, in How the Other Half Loves, tells two stories simultaneously within the same setting. The assumption I make in The Wayside Motor Inn is that since all the rooms in a medium-priced American motel are virtually the same, why not have several different plots work themselves out simultaneously within one single motel room standing for many others. If this sounds needlessly complicated, I tried to make the evening comprehensible by making the different stories occurring in this room fairly simple and straightforward.

As I was writing this play, I thought I was presenting an brilliant and insightful cross section of America, compacted into a motel which itself stands as a generalizing image of transitory American life. One problem immediately became apparent in rehearsals, though: the play makes unusually difficult demands on the actors. There’s very little logic in many of the cues as one stories interrupts or supersedes another. Ensemble moments can be powerful in opera because the music unifies the competing interests of the separate characters, but the only unifying element is The Wayside Motor Inn is its single set.

The play asks its audience to watch a juggler- me, the playwright - toss five plots into the air, letting them only occasionally touch each other, and it may be a game an audience isn’t especially interested in playing. In any case, as the headline of one review tersely put it, “Inn falls by wayside.”

I sold the play rather quickly to a television producer but to my knowledge even Hollywood equally quickly gave up on it. So maybe I have to categorize The Wayside Motor Inn as what the scholar John Gassner, who taught playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, would call “a notion play”, where the drama is drowned in what seemed to the author like an ingenious concept. Perhaps Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, with their complicated constructions, work so well because his characters learn to deal with the restrictions he puts on them, whereas Americans, whether playwrights, actors or audiences, may be more interested in breaking through restrictions than in playing with them.

 

The Wayside Motor Inn (2015)

4m, 4w; single set. DPS

 

Afterthought: the critics roundly trounced this play when it was first produced in New York at the Manhattan Theater Club. When it was recently revived, with some trepidation on my part, in the fall of 2014 at the Signature Theater in New York, it evoked a very different response. Under the stalwart direction of Lila Neuegebauer, who gave it a first rate cast and a simply functional set, the play seemed to wake up and stretch its legs after its long sleep. As a result, it was reasonably well received by the New York critics. It even won a Drama Desk Award for the best revival of the season. Who knew?

 

Wayside Motor Inn

 

 

For further information, please contact Jonathan Lomma at WME Entertainment byemail (jdl@wmeentertainment.com)
or write to Mr. Lomma at WME, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, N.Y., 10019.