Nyack writer’s comedy drawn from his experience with Darren McGavin
Nyack playwright Tom Dudzick might have grown up in Buffalo, but he rightly calls Stony Point’s Penguin Rep Theatre his artistic home. For three summers running, the barn theater has presented Dudzick’s plays “Miracle on South Division Street,” “Over the Tavern” and “Greetings!”
Make that four. Starting Friday, it’s “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” Dudzick’s “semi-fictional” account of a playwright whose Broadway-bound play is hijacked by his desire to please the cast.
Director Tom Caruso’s cast is led by two-time Tony nominee Beth Fowler (“The Boy from Oz,” “Sweeney Todd”) and Richard Kline, (“Larry” from TV’s “Three’s Company”), both of whom Penguin audiences saw in last season’s “Greetings!”.
The rest of the cast is David Arkema, Wilbur Henry, Claire Karpen and Alexandra Turshen. The play runs through Aug. 26.
Dudzick says “Don’t Talk to the Actors” was inspired by the 1993 Off-Broadway run of “Greetings!” that starred Darren McGavin, forever known as the father on “A Christmas Story.”
“He was, rest his soul, sort of troublesome,” Dudzick says. “I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to talk to these people. I was so impressed with him. ‘Oh, my God! It’s Darren McGavin! He’s in my play! He wants to discuss my script! How thrilling!’ But I didn’t realize that he was trying to steer me into rewrites.”
It was pretty bad there for a while, Dudzick says.
“He was calling my house at night with a whole scene he had rewritten,” he says. “I didn’t let it get too far after that. I’d tell the director ‘Darren’s calling me.’”
“Greetings!” lasted seven weeks at the John Houseman Theater, but has gone on to regional success.
And Dudzick’s run-in with the night stalker led directly to “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” which premiered in Buffalo in 2007.
That production was also directed by Caruso and also starred Kline as the rather pompous fading actor who tries to change the script to make it “grittier.”
Fowler’s character, inspired by the bawdy comedienne Belle Barth, likewise tries to steer the impressionable playwright into making changes.
In the play, someone tells the budding playwright that his plays are too nice.
“‘It’s too nice for New York. People aren’t nice in New York.’ That kind of stuff has plagued me for years, that my characters are too nice, my plays are too nice for New Yorkers and that it won’t fly here. I can’t say that they’re wrong. Maybe it’s true. But it’s OK, because the regionals like me. I seem to resonate with those people and that’s where I’m from.”
While the play’s action is heightened, Dudzick admits to being “the wide-eyed guy coming to New York, susceptible to falling into the trap of talking to the actors and doing what they’d like just to please them.”
“Ohhhhhh, yeah,” he says. “My conduit is the director. Everything goes through him.”
That made it more difficult on Dudzick this spring when he became a first-time director, leading a production of the play at the Montgomery Theater in Souderton, Pa. The irony was not lost on Dudzick.
“Here I am, finally able to talk to the actors, and it’s a play called “Don’t Talk to the Actors,’” he says with a grin. “I did all of my homework. I did not want to be that unprepared director.”
Dudzick says working directly with the actors allowed him to streamline some lines without the actors wondering “is this what the playwright intended, because there I was.”
If Jerry the playwright is too eager to please, Dudzick is certainly open to making changes. He changed the title of “Our Lady of South Division Street” to “Miracle on South Division Street” and took it Off-Broadway this spring, directed by Penguin’s poobah Joe Brancato.
“They tell me there are playwrights — I don’t know any like this — but they tell me there are playwrights who will not change a word. And I’ve sort of been blessed with this attitude, like Jerry says in the play. ‘If it’s not working, we’ll fix it.’ Thank goodness I have that, becau’se I’ve fixed a lot. A lot of things go wrong and you have to be open to it. I’ve had a playwright say to me: ‘Gee, how do you do that? How do you change things?’ And I scream ‘You change them because they’re not working!’”
(Update: Penguin announced on July 30 that Dudzick will continue to not take his own advice in an even more public way: He will appear as director Mike Policzek in “Don’t Talk to the Actors” during the run’s final weekend, Aug. 23-26.)
“Don’t Talk to the Actors,” Penguin Rep Theatre, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point. Weekends, Aug. 3 to 26. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $39. Discounts for groups and those 30 and younger. All seats for a special 2 p.m. preview performance on Aug. 3 are $19.50. 845-786-2873 www.penguinrep.org. Next: Sarah Treem’s “The How and the Why,” directed by Joe Brancato, runs Oct. 5-28.
(Photos by Aaron Pepis: Top, the cast of Penguin Rep Theatre’s production of “Don’t Talk to the Actors” by Nyack playwright Tom Dudzick includes, from left: Alexandra Turshen (Arlene), David Arkema (Jerry), Claire Karpen (Lucinda), Wilbur Henry (Mike), Beth Fowler (Beatrice) and Richard Kline (Curt Logan). Middle: Richard Kline (Curt Logan), Alexandra Turshen (Arlene, upstage) and Beth Fowler (Beatrice) in “Don’t Talk to the Actors.” Bottom photo by Peter Carr/The Journal News: Tom Dudzick at Penguin Rep.)