Thursday, February 10, 2011

Heartbreak and Humor

by Anthony Stoeckert

Michael Mastro was performing in West Side Story on Broadway last year when he talked about directing with fellow actor Peter Maloney. Mr. Mastro had directed a few one-act plays and was looking to make the jump to a full-length production, and Mr. Maloney asked what play he’d like to direct first.

”I said something where the scenery doesn’t move with a fairly small cast,” Mr. Mastro says. “Something like — I literally said this — something like ‘The Subject Was Roses’ or ‘You Can’t Take it With You.’”

Two hours later, he ran into David Saint — the Artistic Director at George Street Playhouse and the associate director of West Side Story — in the green room of the Palace Theatre.
”David was visiting to watch the show and take notes,” Mr. Mastro says, “And he said, ‘Do you know the play ‘The Subject Was Roses?’” ”I said, ‘Yes.’” ”He said, ‘I have it in my season and I had scheduled myself to direct it but I realized that’s not going be possible and I was wondering if you’d be interested.’ And I said yes right there and then.”

That moment of serendipity led to the run of Frank Gilroy’s 1964 play at George Street through March 6. Mastro is making his full-length directorial debut at the New Brunswick theater, after acting in three plays there. Working at George Street is a bit different from his last directing gig, which involved rehearsals in his living room and buying props himself at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

”Suddenly I’m at a beautiful live performance theater with a staff of people who have fantastic attitudes, fantastic work ethics,” he says. “To sit at a production meeting with 10 people around the table who are all ready to support me in seeing through this vision of Frank Gilroy’s beautiful play is like a dream come true.” He also calls his cast a dream.

Stephanie Zimbalist — best known for playing Laura Holt on Remington Steele in the 1980s — plays Nettie Cleary, who’s in a troubled marriage with John (Lee Sellars). Nettie and John’s son Timmy (Chris Wendelken) has returned home from World War II, and the family’s arguments lead to significant, painful truths being shared.
”My first take on it was that it’s a family dysfunction piece,” says Ms. Zimbalist. “It’s coming home from the war, it’s a coming-of-age piece for the young man coming home from World War II and all the accouterment thereof. And it’s a piece about how families function and don’t function.” Depsite its pedigree (it won the Pulitzer, the Tony and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award), The Subject Was Roses has never had a Broadway revival and has been, in Mr. Mastro’s words, “sitting on the shelf.”

The director adds that it’s the kind of play that offers various points of view for different audience members.
”People who know people in the armed forces are going to see one play,” Mr. Mastro says. “I think people who are feeling that they’re stuck in marriages that are stale and troubled are going to see another play. I think young people who feel caught between their two parents and caught at home, somehow unable to get out, are going to see another play. I think it’s all those plays.” But for all of those interpretations, he keeps coming back to one word. ”I think that ultimately it’s a play about forgiveness and the power of forgiveness and its power to allow people to move forward,” he says. “There are people who need forgiveness in the play, there are people who need to forgive in the play, I think everybody has a bit of both.

But it’s a word that kept coming up for me as I was preparing to direct the play.”
As much as the play explores some honest, painful emotions, Mr. Mastro says it has a healthy sense of humor. ”This may be a family that’s troubled, but like any family, they would like things to be good, everybody wants things to be better,” he says. “There’s a wonderful sense of humor and love of humor, love of music, so it will be very rich that way. It’s not a constant harangue of screaming and yelling, not at all.” It’s also a play that is sparking discussion.

George Street has chosen it for its program where subscribers read the play and talk about it (a sort of play book club).
”The conversations about the play go on for hours, they have to shove people out the door because people want to talk about this play,” Mr. Mastro says. “They see something of their family in this play. I think everybody, young and old, will see something of themselves in this play.”

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