The critic as playwright: Mark Leib on preparing for a reading

In addition to being Creative Loafing's theater critic, I'm also a playwright (my first professional U.S. production was in 1980 at the American Repertory Theatre), and I'm about to embark on one of those experiences that makes playwriting so pleasing and nerve-wracking at the same time: an early exposure of a new play to an actual audience. In future posts, I'll talk about the rehearsal process and the play itself, what drove me to write it and what sort of response it provokes. For the moment, I’ll talk about the chapter of the adventure I’ve just completed: the NY reading-that-wasn’t.

My newest play, A River in the Desert, had been scheduled for a mid-December reading in NYC starring TV actor Fyvush Finkel (Boston Public, Picket Fences) and Zack Kostro as an old Jewish professor and a young Nazi officer who was once his adoring student. (The play is also scheduled to have a staged reading in Tampa at Gorilla Theatre on January 15.)

Unfortunately, a few days before we were scheduled to fly to NYC, director Tony Giordano called to say that Fyvush's wife had been diagnosed with leukemia, and we were going to have to postpone the reading until January. Having already bought the plane tickets — and much needing a vacation — my wife, son and I decided to go to NY anyway.

Before leaving it became necessary to find actors for the Tampa staged reading, to be directed by Jim Rayfield. Jim and I decided upon Michael O. Smith (whom I'd seen onstage at American Stage and Florida Studio Theatre) for the professor and Chris Rutherford (formerly Jim's student at Blake High School) for the young Nazi. Michael O. and Fyvush represent very different types, but both have the dramatic gravitas necessary for a professor able to generate deep respect and love in his students.

Once in NY, we spent several hours with Tony (and an Indian actor who dropped by his westside Manhattan apartment), and then just before we left I spent a half hour with Zack midtown discussing the mixed emotions of an SS man who a) deeply admired his Jewish philosophy professor, but who b) now feels constrained to despise him for racial reasons. Zack had an intelligent and judicious understanding of the character, and I left our talk feeling encouraged about the reading. Still, Fyvush was giving all his attention to his wife, so we didn't have a chance to talk. I said a prayer for his wife and asked Tony to keep me informed. As for the readings, it now looks like the Tampa one will precede the NY one by days or weeks.

For the moment, I'm encouraged: Jim Rayfield did a wonderful job directing the staged reading at Gorilla of my play American Duet, Michael O. Smith is a marvelously talented actor, and Chris Rutherford is one of the best young performers in the Tampa Bay area. I spent over a year writing and revising A River in the Desert, and I'm ready to let it go: to display it to an audience, to have a talkback afterwards and find out how it works. What I'll discover — that remains to be seen.

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