Two Premieres, 1 By Teachout, Top Dramaworks’ Season, Plus Sweeney Todd This Summer

By Bill Hirschman

Billy and Me, a world premiere by theater critic Terry Teachout about the difficult friendship of legendary playwrights William Inge and Tennessee Williams, will be one of the highlights in next season’s slate at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

The play bowing next December will be joined by a second world premiere March 31-April 29, Edgar & Emily by Joseph McDonough, a comic fantasia in which emerging poet Emily Dickinson is unexpectedly visited by a desperate Edgar Allan Poe. It is the first product of the theater’s Dramaworkshop to be presented on the mainstage.

Staging world premieres always has been in the long-range plan of Producing Artistic Director William Hayes and Managing Director Sue Ellen Beryl who want to develop a national profile for Dramaworks as a major regional theater.

Hayes said in a statement, “Our commitment to classic and contemporary plays remains steadfast. We will be staging world premieres periodically, and only when we find plays that excite us. But we believe that as we continue to grow and evolve, presenting new plays is crucial. It’s a critical part of the mandate of not-for-profit, regional theatres.”

The premieres join the rest of the 2017-2018 lineup of familiar classics announced this week: On Golden Pond, Equus and The Little Foxes,

The company also revealed the title of its upcoming musical for this summer – a fully-staged production of Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler’s dark masterpiece Sweeney Todd.

The Teachout work is the brainchild of Hayes who began thinking about the real life nexus of the two men while he was directing Inge’s play Picnic in 2015, especially how one career was on the rise as the other was on the decline.

Hayes knew Teachout from the laudatory reviews that Wall Street Journal critic had written about Dramaworks’ productions since The Chairs in 2009. Last spring, Hayes gave Teachout his first chance at a professional directing gig when Dramaworks produced Teachout’s script about Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at the Waldorf. During Teachout’s duties, the men discussed the Inge-Williams idea over lunch. Flying back to New York the next day, Teachout wrote a scenario “in a frenzy” on the plane.
 
“I phoned Bill from the plane as soon as I landed and said, ‘I think I know what the play is!’ ” Teachout recalled in a news release. “Ever since I first saw Freud’s Last Session at PBD, I’d wanted to try writing a history play of my own that takes place in a kind of blank historical space, an undocumented moment during which you know almost nothing for sure about what actually happened to the real-life characters. We know that Inge and Williams were friends, but neither one of them ever spoke on record about their relationship in any detail. That gave me the elbow room I needed to imagine for myself what might possibly have taken place between them.”

Freud’s Last Session was a successful play by Mark St. Germain imagining a meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, arguing about the existence of God.

Billy and Me is described as a memory play narrated by Williams. Act I is set at a bar in Chicago on December 31, 1944, immediately after a pre-Broadway tryout of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie—the play that inspired Inge to become a playwright. Act II takes place almost 15 years later in Inge’s Manhattan apartment, a few hours after the Broadway premiere of his first flop, A Loss of Roses.
 
“It’s a play about love, jealousy, and—not to put it too pompously—destiny,” wrote Teachout. “An artist is a person who can’t do anything else with his life. Art is his fate: it’s that or nothing. But he can’t become an artist until he accepts that fate and acknowledges his true nature. That’s a big part of what this play is about: the struggle of two great American playwrights to come to terms with who they really were.”

The production is slated for Dec. 8, 2017-Jan. 7, 2018, starring Nicholas Richberg (Richard Henry Lee in last summer’s 1776) as Williams, and Tom Wahl (After, I Am My Own Wife, Summer Shorts) as Inge, with a supporting performance by Kristian Bikic, and with Hayes directing. All four have been involved in private workshops for several months.
 
Satchmo was Teachout’s first play after spending years as dance, theater and music critic. But he also has written libretti for operas, penned acclaimed biographies of arts figures, written liner notes for albums, and pioneered online arts criticism through his blog About Last Night (http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight).  He is believed to be the only national-level critic regularly writing about regional theaters across the country as well as productions in New York City. His reviews of Dramaworks’ productions have helped elevate the company’s national reputation, although he has invoked a moratorium on reviewing its works for several years to come.

The rest of 2017-2018 mainstage schedule is:

The Little Foxes (Oct. 20 – Nov. 19) Lillian Hellman’s scorching depiction of a scheming dysfunctional wealthy family in the Deep South at the turn of the century. Noted for their ruthless treatment of everyone including each other, the Hubbard clan poison everything they touch. It is best known for the film version starring Bette Davis as the venal Regina and the stage revival that played in Fort Lauderdale starring Elizabeth Taylor.
 
On Golden Pond (Feb. 2 – March 4) Ernest Thompson’s elegiac examination of a senior couple who are enjoying their retirement in a pastoral setting when they are invaded by their troubled daughter who brings her fiancé and his son.
          
Equus (May 18 – June 17) Peter Shaffer’s highly theatrical masterpiece about a
deeply troubled psychiatrist attempting to treat a young man whose complex obsession with horses has led him to blind six animals.

The other news is the company’s production July 14-Aug. 6 of Sondheim’s epic about the bloody revenge of a wronged barber in London in the dehumanizing throes of the Industrial Revolution, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Dramaworks began mounting minimally-staged concert versions of musicals in January 2013. But over the years, the production values of the summer events have increased, culminating recently in fully-staged productions whose only limitation is a cut-down orchestra. The trend culminated last summer with its inventive riff on 1776, which included cast members playing multiple roles, sometimes with women playing men’s roles

Hayes wrote in a news release, “One of the reasons I’m excited to be doing Sweeney Todd, aside from the fact that it’s a wonderful work, is because I think it’s the kind of musical that will attract younger audiences and a more diverse demographic during the summer months.”

The production will be directed, as most of the musicals have been, by Clive Cholerton, and feature scenic design by Michael Amico and costume design by Brian O’Keefe.

The original production of Sweeney Todd, directed by Hal Prince, opened in 1979 and ran for 557 performances, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Frequently revived, the work was reimagined in 2005 by John Doyle and starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, with every actor doubling as musicians.

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