Penguin Rep’s new play is a study in collaboration and renewal
It got plenty of laughs.
But after two productions, in his native Massachusetts and New Jersey, Rick Dresser thought his play, “The Last Days of Mickey and Jean” — the story of a mobster on the lam with his girlfriend — still needed something.
What the play needed, Dresser decided last fall, was Joe Brancato and his Penguin Rep, an incubator for new plays.
Their collaboration bears fruit on June 29, when a much-revised “The Last Days of Mickey and Jean” opens at Penguin Rep, with Thomas G. Waites and Sarah McCafrey in the title roles.
The comedy drew its inspiration from Massachusetts mobster Whitey Bulger, who spent 16 years on the run with his much-younger girlfriend, Catherine Greig, before being captured last summer in California. Bulger faces 19 murder charges; Greig was sentenced to eight years for helping him remain a fugitive.
(Oscar-winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are readying a Bulger movie, and Mark Wahlberg has discussed tackling the subject, as Bulger is part of their native Boston’s lore.)
Dresser wrote “Mickey and Jean” while Bulger and Greig were still at large. In it, he imagines what such a couple would have gone through in the name of security, how they might have tired of each other, how even a city as beautiful as Paris might lose its charm in such circumstances.
Dresser had done his research.
“Everyone who had a drink with Whitey wrote a book about him and I read all the books,” he says. “It doesn’t make you a better person, after a certain point, to read every book about Whitey Bulger.”
When it became time to write the play, a work of fiction, Dresser had to put away the research.
“This character of Mickey is so compelling in his own right that I don’t want people thinking Whitey Bulger,” he says.
Penguin produced Dresser’s Little League comedy “Rounding Third” last season, and Brancato asked the playwright if he had other new works. Dresser says he was so unconvinced of the worth of “Mickey and Jean” that he hesitated to send it to Brancato. But he sent it — and soon his phone rang. It was Brancato, suggesting they meet over Thai food in Nyack.
Brancato told Dresser he thought the play could be more.
“It’s now less of a laugh fest,” the director says. “There was a sweetness and a cuteness to the play. It became a cute little comedy to me. But I was drawn to this woman and what is she going to do? What is my way into this relationship? It can’t be through him, because he’s a sociopath. What’s her story and her dilemma. The other character that I was drawn to was Bobby, the man who meets Jean. I felt Rick had delivered characters essentially who were totally for me.”
Dresser remembers that meeting.
“Once we started talking, I felt like this was a great opportunity for me as a writer to go back to a play that I thought was flawed,” he adds. “I have a lot of conversations with people about my work that don’t make me want to go back to my desk and work. But that conversation did.”
Brancato knew he’d found a collaborator.
“It became clear to me that he really wanted to work on this play,” he says. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have ordered dessert.”
He had him at Pad Thai.
“The original script was more broad comedy,” Dresser says. “The process was really getting rid of all of the easy comedy and building the play organically from these characters. It has been a great, exciting, terrifying ride because you lose sight of a lot of things, because you’re really creating a new play.”
Scenes were trimmed, moved or removed. A key speech — when Mickey tells a powerful story from his childhood — was moved to the end.
The laughs remain, Dresser says, but they illuminate the characters, without distracting from them.
And along the way, it has become more of Jean’s play, her perspective.
Over 35 years, Brancato has made a name for himself by asking playwrights uncomfortable questions and not settling for easy answers. He helps them to drill down to what matters most.
He did it for British writer Karoline Leach, whose play “The Mysterious Mr. Love” Brancato refocused into “Tryst.” It has played Off-Broadway and regionally and will be staged at Hartford Theaterworks in August.
He challenged Nyack’s Tom Dudzick to reconsider “Our Lady of South Division Street,” which is now playing at Off-Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theater, under the name “Miracle of South Division Street.”
“This is precisely what Penguin Rep is supposed to be doing,” Brancato says. “It’s precisely why I founded the theater. It’s exciting to have a playwright who listens to actors and hears something from them in rehearsal, goes home and comes back with another whole scene.”
“The Last Days of Mickey and Jean,” Penguin Rep, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point. June 29 through July 22. 8 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturday; 4 p.m., Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $39. There’s also a reduced-price, $19.50, matinee at 2 p.m. June 29. 845-786-2873. www.penguinrep.org
Photo by Matthew E. Brown/The Journal News: Rick Dresser, left, and Joe Brancato at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, where Dresser’s play, “The Last Days of Mickey and Jean” opens next weekend.