Local author explores the short drama

No second acts?


The old cliché, “There are no second acts in life,” has been seriously challenged by the number of people who turn retirement into a second career. A case in point is Ken Dooley, the Cranston native who retired from journalism and publishing years ago and has been filling his freed-up time to write plays. He started a few years back when he wrote a play about Red Auerbach, who he partnered with for the book, “MBA: Management by Auerbach” in 1991, followed by a biographical play called “The Auerbach Dynasty.”

A couple of years ago, he staged “The Murder Trial of John Gordon,” about the events leading up to the trial, conviction and death of an Irish immigrant who was the last prisoner executed in Rhode Island in 1845. Dooley has turned that play into a screenplay he expects to begin filming later this year. Currently, he’s working on another movie called “Bellevue Avenue,” about the gilded era in Newport, his current hometown.

Now he’s set to watch the Rhode Island debut of his one-act play, “Ups and Downs,” described as “the raucous story of two mature couples chosen to participate in a very special scientific and medical experiment.”

Anyone who has seen “The Murder Trial of John Gordon” knows that Dooley is familiar with the long form drama. You might question if he’s a little worn out from all the research and dramaturgy, and one-act plays may be an easier format for drama, a piece of cake for some accustomed to long stretches of dialogue and exposition.

“That’s not true,” he said in a phone interview last week. “It’s a very difficult format, and it’s very different from a standard drama because you have to tell a complete story in one act. It’s like the difference between short stories and novels. You have to do a lot in a limited amount of time. You don’t have time to develop characters. The dialogue has to be shorter and crisper.”

The history of the one-act drama is not one of modern authors playing to the short attention span of modern audiences. As any classical scholar can tell you, it has its origins in ancient Greek drama. Euripides wrote a “satyr play” called “Cyclops,” which was a comic take-off on one part of the Odysseus story, when Odysseus and his hungry crew land in Sicily and are given food by Silenius, who accused Odysseus of stealing the food when the monster Cyclops demands an accounting for his missing provisions.

But the real age of the one-act had to wait for the modern era to find writers and audiences for the form. Anton Chekov, August Strindberg, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder have all produced one-acts that have become staples of serious repertory companies and community theatres around the world.

“Today it is not the three-act play, nor the five-act play that is the center of interest in dramatic expression; it is the one-act play - not a new form of course, but one that, despite unsympathetic animadversion, challenges attention,” according to B. Roland Lewis in his “The Technique of the One-Act Play.”

If it weren’t for the stilted vocabulary of Lewis, you’d think he wrote that recently, but the book was published in 1918.

“Theatre managers, the general theatre-going public, actors, playwrights, and even the professors in the University, recognize its presence. It is observed, too, that no apology is being offered for the better sort of contemporary one-act plays, and indeed none is needed. They justify themselves as worthwhile studies of human life and character. Their effectiveness as a form of dramatic expression is their own justification for being,” continued Lewis.

Lewis made much of the fact that one-acts reflected the times in which they were composed, but that does not mean that they go out of date. There is still a lot to laugh at in Cyclops because it deals with the most permanent and flawed parts of human nature.

“The one-act play, like the short-story, is a type unto itself; and to suggest that the prospective playwright use the one-act play only as a thing on which to practice before attempting the larger form, is an insult to the form,” wrote Lewis, “the short story is as much a literary type as the larger novel; and the one-act play must not be lightly thrown aside just because it happens to be smaller than the multi-act form.”

“I wasn’t aware that one-act plays went that far back,” said Dooley. “But that’s not surprising. The three plays we are presenting are by excellent writers. David Ives and Murray Schisgal. David Ives is one of the most recognized playwrights around. Murray Schisgal is one of the funniest writers alive. He wrote the movie ‘Tootsie’ and a lot of other great stuff. Frankly, I’m a little scared about being on the same bill with these guys. They are so good.”

What Dooley takes comfort in is the cast and direction of a seasoned theatre group called Theater at Hollywood and Vine in Plymouth, founded by Artistic Director Jeff Gill nine years ago.

Since that time, the ensemble has presented nearly 150 outstanding, often little known, one-act plays from around the

world in a relaxed, off-off Broadway-type atmosphere, an atmosphere they hope to create at the Narragansett Theatre at the Pier, under the wing of the Park Cinema’s Piyush Patel, who hopes to bring live theater to Narragansett. Also on the bill will be “Fifty Years Ago,” by Murray Schisgal, which concerns an older couple's evening of memories and hilarious confrontations, as they celebrate their first year of marriage, along with the 50th year of their having first met, on VJ Day, in 1945.

“Mere Mortals,” by David Ives, is a comedy about a very unusual lunch hour taking place on a construction girder 50 stories above the city, where three workers share “increasingly amazing secrets of their past.”

Dooley’s play, “Ups and Downs,” features Mike Pevzner, who has been directing and acting since the mid 1970s. This is his third appearance with Theater at Hollywood and Vine.

He is joined by Pamela Lambert, who has worked as an actress, a director and vocalist touring nationally and internationally with Herb Reed and The Platters. She is a resident director with this troupe and she directed Dooley’s “The Murder Trial of John Gordon” at the Park Cinema several years ago.

Also featured is Bern Budd, who has been an actor, director, technical director and roadie since graduating from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York in 1971. He has worked in theaters from Seattle to Switzerland and retired last year from 10 years of performing his one-man show “Mark Twain Talks.” Budd was in the Theater at Hollywood and Vine's first show and expects to be in its last one.

Lastly, Marianne Withington, a veteran actress and playwright who has been featured in productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Blithe Spirit” and “Broadway Bound” and is a music and voice teacher by day.

Fans of short-form drama can see these three examples at the Theater at the Pier, 3 Beach St. in Narragansett, Friday night. Tickets are $25 and $20 for people under 21. A pre-curtain dinner buffet is available for $19.95 and includes a glass of wine and dessert. Dinner is at 7 and the curtain goes up at 8 p.m.

“To tell you the truth, most people will think it’s crazy to try to establish live theater in a beach community in the middle of winter,” said Dooley, “but I am hopeful that people like it enough to come back.”

For more information or to make reservations, call 792-3539. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday starting on Jan. 31. The same schedule will be repeated the following week.


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