WRITING A PLAY ABOUT A PLAYWRIGHT
by Bruce Reisman
I’m not a native of New York, far from it. I was born in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles where I’ve spent most of my life as both a resident and writer. I’ve spent a good deal of time living in Manhattan, performing there in much younger days, writing and directing there as well.
Having made a career in television, very few of my projects took place in New York. That was a conscious choice. The closest I came to the East coast setting was with two movies for television, “Wish”, which took place on Cape Cod, and “The Best Yard Sale Ever”, set on the coastline of upstate New York.
My first play, however, “A Visit From a Strummer’s Wife”, written in 1983, took place on the Upper West Side and was about the life and relationships of a fictional New York playwright. Now, 30 years later, I’ve gone back to New York with “Blank”; and purely by coincidence, it tells the story of a New York playwright, this time living in Connecticut and working in the “city”. But where the first play was pure fiction, “Blank” is inspired by the life of one of my heroes: Joshua Logan. Logan is not a household name, but if I told you he co-wrote and directed “South Pacific”, directed the movie adaptations of “Picnic” and “Camelot”, and most importantly to my play, he co-wrote “Mr. Roberts” in 1950 with Thomas Heggen and won the Pulitzer Prize; then perhaps his name might mean something. Or not.
“Blank” is the story of that collaboration, as I imagine it might have been like. It takes place on one-set,the studio on Logan’s Long Ridge, Connecticut estate. And although the women in their lives move in and out of the story, the three-month creative process depicted in “Blank” is basically a very New York-set “behind closed doors” verbal and emotional volleyball match between two creative forces: the elder, established pro (here named “Logan Wellman”) and the young, cocky, alcoholic Thomas Heggen (here named “Tom Hannigan”). The third member of this artistic triangle is “Charlie”, the young typist who sits between these two forces of artistry, recording every word of dialogue that will eventually end up as a new play entitled “Brenner’s War”.
Joshua Logan inspired me as a kid wanting to be a writer-director because that’s what Logan was. I read his first book. “Josh”, a candid autobiography so many times I had to buy it twice because the pages were that tattered and marked up. His second book, “Movie Stars, Real People, and Me” was just as inspiring as Logan wrote many anecdotes about his life in show business and the stars he worked with, and often became close friends with (i.e. Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Richard Harris, Hank Fonda, and the man he gave a first job to, Jack Nicholson).
But it was always his artistic and personal bond with Tom Heggen that has resonated with me for over 30 years. He was so close to Heggen, that after his young protege committed
suicide, Josh named his own son “Tom”. Although Joshua Logan had a long and loving relationship with his wife Nedda, it was always his intimate stories about the men and women he worked with that seemed to be the most passionate.
When I finally met Joshua Logan in 1979, at a Christmas party at the apartment of composer Albert Hague, my good buddy, Tony winner Mike Rupert, secretly told Logan that I was a huge fan and asked if the elder statesman of the American Theatre would take the time to talk to me.
Mr. Logan did. He tapped me on the shoulder at the buffet table and introduced himself. I couldn’t talk. (I was in my early 20’s and was still acting like a schmuck when I met people I was in awe of of). However, he did take me into the study of Mr. Hague, where a window overlooked the Dakota, and we could see the blood stained sidewalk of where John Lennon had been shot dead just a week earlier. There, for about 20 minutes, my hero… old, maybe in his 80’s, sat me down and answered all my questions. And as we returned to the party, he shook my hand, wished me luck, and then said, “My dear boy… I do hope you keep your sanity”.
“I do hope you keep your sanity”. Those seven words have been threading through my consciousness since 1979. And it is with that same “hope” that finally got my ass down at the PC, to write, “Blank”.
The play had its premiere engagement at the Ruby Theater at the Complex on February 8, 2014, received excellent reviews, and ran for six weeks.