Walter Anderson knows how to put words on the page.
For 32 years, he worked at Parade Magazine, the Sunday newspaper staple. Before that, he worked at the predecessor of The Journal News. He has written five books, including the memoir, “Meant To Be” and wrote and performed as “America’s Storyteller” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
But this week, Walter Anderson’s words take to the stage to be spoken by others.
His first play, six years in the making, is “Almost Home,” opening this week at Manhattan’s Acorn Theatre on 42nd Street for a run through Oct. 12.
The story involves a young Marine who returns to his Bronx home from Vietnam in 1964, bearing war wounds and facing choices: College, stay in the military or choose the door chosen for him by the police captain who has been like a father to him?
It’s a case of Anderson writing what he knows: The longtime White Plains resident was a Marine in Vietnam.
“Almost Home” gets its world premiere from the Directors Company, with a cast that includes Tony-winner Karen Ziemba (as Grace, the mother), Joe Lisi (as Harry, the father), Jonny Orsini (as Johnny, the Marine), and Brenda Pressley (as Luisa, Johnny’s long-ago teacher). Playing Capt. Nick Pappas is James McCaffrey, who lives in Larchmont.
“When you write a play, you hear the voices in your head,” said Anderson. “But when you have someone like Jim or Karen or Joe or Jonny or Brenda perform them, it’s extraordinary. When Jim is on stage, he is Nick Pappas. There is a real presence.”
If McCaffrey’s face is familiar, it may be thanks to his years on Dennis Leary’s “Rescue Me” on FX, in which he played Cousin Jimmy, a ghost of Sept. 11. When it is suggested that Pappas is the heavy in “Almost Home,” he bristles good-naturedly.
“I told Walter when we first met: I don’t think Nick is a bad guy,” McCaffrey said. “He’s rude and crude and boisterous and outspoken, but I love the guy. I think he’s got a good heart. He just twists some things, not just for his benefit. I refuse to see him as the bad guy.”
Anderson agrees, pointing to the character’s willingness to act, to walk the walk, to get things done.
“My mentor taught me a lesson over many years: I never know what another human being thinks or feels or needs. I only know what they do. And they are their behavior.”
That mentor: writer and Nazi hunter Elie Wiesel.
“Almost Home” captures a time just before the reforms of Mayor John Lindsey challenged police corruption throughout New York City, leading to the Knapp Commission and Frank Serpico. Pappas sees the change coming and hopes to enlist Johnny in navigating the rough road ahead.
“You write as well as you can write but if the actors don’t put flesh on those bones, don’t put muscle on those bones, it doesn’t happen,” Anderson said. “When we auditioned actors, I learned so much watching the actors not understand the characters they were doing,” Anderson said. “They misunderstood Pappas. They played him as pure evil. There’s more dimension to this guy. He believes he’s a good guy. He knows what he wants and how to get it.”
Anderson is so open to the process, it sometimes gets the better of him.
“When Karen Ziemba read one of the scenes in the auditions, I welled all up when she read it — and I wrote the damn thing,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what an actor does.”
Still, Anderson isn’t precious about his writing.
“I know that there’s a lot of writers who won’t change a word, but you’ve got to listen to the actors when they come to you and say ‘This isn’t what I would say.’ I have five actors who own these parts. We talk about the change and they make their case. In some cases, I’ve cut lines and they ask for them back.”
After the first reading, hearing professional actors deliver the lines he had crafted, he knew it had to be completely reworked.
“People would tell me how beautifully it was written and that was a problem. It was beautifully written. But it wasn’t meant to be said, it was meant to be read. This is the most difficult writing I’ve done in my life. All of the action is in the dialogue. Not a word can be wasted.
“What makes you hold to a story is tension. You create tension by asking or implying a question up front. Wherever you answer that question ends the tension. Damn, that sounds easy. It’s hard. You can’t be a playwright and not depend on your actors and director, giving them freedom to talk about those characters and breathe life into those characters.”
After six years of writing and rewriting, “Almost Home” is entirely ready for an audience, and the payoff for which Anderson has been waiting.
“The greatest thrill for me, sense of fulfillment, will be sitting in an audience watching an audience watch my play. To see it actually performed for an audience. I haven’t focused beyond seeing it through. I’ll never have another first night. This is it. If people want to do this play elsewhere, that’s fine. It would thrill me to no end. The truth of the matter is I’ll only have a first night once.”
McCaffrey interjects: “There is Broadway.”
“A second first night,” Anderson shoots back with a laugh.
“Almost Home,” at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (between Ninth and Tenth) through Oct. 12. $46.25. 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250. With: Tony-winner Karen Ziemba (“Contact”) Joe Lisi (“Take Me Out”), James McCaffrey (“Rescue Me”), Jonny Orsini (“The Nance”), Brenda Pressley (“The Lyons”). Check out the Directors Company website
Photo by Peter D. Kramer: Walter Anderson, left, and James McCaffrey in the lobby of Theater Row’s Acorn Theater, home of “Almost Home.”
Entirely ready for ‘Almost Home’
Walter Anderson knows how to put words on the page.