Local Playwrights Hear Their Own Words and Feedback from an Audience

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Writing a play typically involves making a lot of educated guesses. Characters are created, words are exchanged and a plot unfolds on paper. But until a play can spring to life through the interaction of players on a stage, primary assumptions remain just that.

Three local playwrights had a chance to see if their short plays could entertain and hold an audience’s attention in an evening of dramatic readings at Guild Hall in East Hampton last week. After nearly two hours and plenty of drama, the playwrights sat under the spotlight while an audience offered opinions on the plays’ themes and commentary on whether or not they could connect with the characters.

The plays under consideration were: “Jimmy Chen” by James Larocca of Sag Harbor; “Divorce” by Hortense Carpentier of East Hampton; and “Play Ball” by Peter Fitzgerald of East Hampton. The three plays had a secondary effect of putting different phases of the playwriting process on view.

“Jimmy Chen” is a finished work and has been submitted by the author to a One-Act festival. The play was based on characters that appeared in Mr. Larocca’s full-length play, “Penang,” which was recently accepted as a featured play in the 2008 Midtown International Theater Festival. It won the 1997 Playwright First Award at The Players Club in Manhattan. “Penang” was read at Guild Hall in 2003. Both plays are set during the Vietnam War; Mr. Larocca served as a naval officer in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

“Jimmy Chen” takes two friends—officers in different branches of the military—and puts them on weekend leave in Penang, Malaysia, where they select an old cabdriver, Jimmy Chen, to ferry them around to see the sights. With each stop, the two men’s fingernail grasp on normalcy in the midst of madness slips a stitch, with Jimmy Chen offering his own horrifying experiences in World War II as an example of hope.

Switching gears, “Divorce,” by Ms. Carpentier, pitted the over-the-top hysteria of a serial monogamist reacting to the behavior of his latest wife against the status of a tried-and-true couple who may not be as steady as they think. “Divorce” is an older work by Ms. Carpentier that she reworked for the reading. She had hoped to present a current play-in-progress but didn’t feel it was ready for a public reading yet, the playwright said in an interview afterward.

“Divorce,” previously titled “Leftovers,” had been on its feet before in private readings. Ms. Carpentier said she plans to table “Divorce” for now and continue working on her play-in-progress.

Two other plays by Ms. Carpentier (“Water’s Edge” and “Cocktail”) have been read at Guild Hall during Naked Stage play readings. A collection of her short plays, “The Black Box,” was produced at Alaska’s Last Frontier Festival. The full-length play, “The Narcissist” was performed by the Potluck Playwrights at Mulford Farm in East Hampton.

The evening concluded with “Play Ball” by Mr. Fitzgerald. The play brings three men to the home of a despondent friend, trying to make sure he’s turning out for the first softball practice of the season. Things take a serious turn when it becomes apparent obsession and depression have taken hold and might not let go.

“Play Ball” is the first play written by Mr. Fitzgerald. It was also read previously at Guild Hall in a Naked Stage evening and underwent a major revision, the author said in an interview afterward. The play was shortened with three characters more fully developed to maximize the impact of emotional punches landed at different points in the play. “Play Ball” is almost in final draft form, Mr. Fitzgerald said, with some minor revisions still needed in spots. He is just beginning to explore one-act festivals and other opportunities that would be suited for his play.

After the revisions, Mr. Fitzgerald plans to put playwriting aside and concentrate on completing short stories that are already in the works. He wrote “Play Ball” on his own when he realized he had an opportunity to present an original work at Guild Hall. Ms. Carpentier is writing her plays outside of a group context these days, but this period follows decades of belonging to an informal playwriting group and then a playwriting workshop at Bay Street Theatre. Both groups provided access to actors who would read the plays-in-process for the authors to hear.

Mr. Larocca belongs to a playwriting group in Manhattan and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. He has had several plays produced locally and in Manhattan. More and more, he is turning his hand toward directing, which is a craft he’d like to develop.

Separately, all three playwrights said it was important to have actors breathe life into the lines and have an audience test the waters when a fledgling play seems strong enough. Part of a playwright’s job, it seems, is finding actors. For last Tuesday’s reading, all the writers secured their own actors. The plays were read through in a single rehearsal right before the presentation.

In some cases, actors appeared in multiple plays. Josh Gladstone, artistic director of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, appeared in “Jimmy Chen” and “Play Ball.” Joseph DeSane appeared in all three plays. Other actors included Nick Fondulis, Gordon Gray, Jan Buckaloo, Joe Pallister and others.

The evening concluded with a Q&A led by Josh Perl, the founder of Naked Stage. All three plays held the attention of the standing-room-only audience. In fact, people were turned away at the door because capacity had been reached at the intimate Boots Lamb Education Center.

Audience members commented on the characters’ decisions not to desert during the Vietnam War, the believability of Ms. Carpentier’s elderly couple, and the issue raised by Mr. Fitzgerald’s play on where the line of responsibility lies when friends realize another friend is in emotional trouble.

The evening of “Three Short Plays by East End Writers” was presented by The Naked Stage, which is presented by Guild Hall.

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