A tale of two plays

This holiday season, local theatergoers are being given a rare gift: a pair of plays written, produced and staged by local companies. Let the show begin.

Christopher Thomas rehearses in costume as the hardware store owner Jacob in A Lot of Life.

Christopher Thomas rehearses in costume as the hardware store owner Jacob in A Lot of Life.

Photo by Larry Dalton

This is our 77th production at the B Street,” Buck Busfield says, holding his script and looking over the actors as rehearsal begins in late November. “That’s staggering to think about.”

And, as he has for several years, Busfield, the producing director at the B Street Theatre, is directing something new—something that he’s written himself, and is still revising. A new Busfield play has become something of a tradition in the December slot. And he’s assembled some special forces for this one, including an experienced leading man with a long list of TV and stage credits.

Something new is also brewing over at the Sacramento Theatre Company, where two veteran actors with Broadway experience are readying the opening of another new play—also by a local playwright, Richard Broadhurst.

It’s the first time in memory, perhaps the first time ever, that both theater companies have simultaneously presented full-length plays by writers living in the 916 area code. And it’s probably not an accident that it’s happening at this time of year. December gives theater directors fits, because so many plays won’t work. Tragedy is out—particularly after September’s airliner attacks. But romantic comedy doesn’t feel right, either. The one certifiable seasonal favorite (“Bah, humbug”) is overexposed.

Little wonder that both companies have turned to something new. But neither of these new plays is a “holiday show” in a conventional sense. There are no Christmas trees. Yet both shows have some interesting parallels. Both feature leading roles for older men, family feuds that resolve, endings that are quietly upbeat. Both are top heavy with former New Yorkers who now live on the West Coast. Both have parts for young actresses who are turning pro.

And the paths of those involved have crossed many times as the two plays moved from first drafts to opening night.

Buck Busfield started producing his own plays in the December slot at the B Street Theatre seven years ago—primarily because he wasn’t satisfied with the scripts that he was reading.

For several years, Busfield wrote Christmas plays with contemporary settings—comedies with something of an edge, involving stressed-out families gathering for the holidays (typically, with one or more member of the household getting sloshed on eggnog at some point along the way).

Busfield branched out two years ago, with a play set in the 1800s, loosely based on one of Charles Dickens’ “other” Christmas stories (Dickens actually wrote several, in addition to A Christmas Carol.)

Last December, Busfield wrote a play that wasn’t connected to Christmas at all—an odd romantic comedy involving a quirky TV weatherman who sought the affections of a scholarly woman living next door.

This year’s December offering likewise has no direct link with the holidays, other than the time slot in which the play is being staged.

Busfield started writing the play—A Lot of Life—back in September. There were two images in his mind as he began. One was a boyhood memory from Busfield’s early years in Lansing, Michigan,—a city that, like Sacramento, is a state capital, but also very much aware of a bigger city (Detroit) about 90 miles away.

When Busfield was growing up, he became acquainted with the family of Spencer Abraham, the former U.S. senator who is now the secretary of energy.

“We hung out in junior high. The parents, who were Lebanese immigrants, owned a fur shop in Lansing. We would go to the shop—it was this Old World thing. There was the auntie that never said a word in English, just knitted and drank tea. There was something about it that I’ve always been attracted to.” In fact, Busfield previously used some of that background in a short play titled The Fur, which was produced at the Actors Theatre in Sacramento a few years ago.

The other source of inspiration for the new play stems from the much-ballyhooed arrival of the Krispy Kreme doughnut chain in Sacramento about a year ago. Busfield took his daughter to see it. “It was this gleaming white building, almost palatial, staffed by these attractive young people. And when I looked next door, there was this tiny little doughnut shop, a mom-and-pop operation. And in the window, they had a sign that said ‘Free coffee with doughnuts.’ ” That picture of a small family business, imperiled by the arrival of a corporate behemoth, lingered in Busfield’s mind.

From these two images came the new play. The little doughnut shop became a fading, family-operated hardware store, run by an aging Italian immigrant—a widower who lives with his beautiful, 20-something daughter. But the hardware store is threatened by a developer’s plans to put up a gigantic home improvement center right next door.

The old man is not a bubbly, jovial figure. “He’s getting close to the end of his life, with a deceased loved one, feeling powerless against a stronger entity,” Busfield explained.

Busfield wrote the play with the physical setting of the B Street Theatre in mind. The theater is squeezed between the railroad tracks and Stanford Park, a neighborhood baseball diamond on the north end of 27th Street in Midtown. The building was designed for light industrial or warehouse use. The ceiling is low—nothing can be dropped down from above. The stage at the B Street is not a classical proscenium, like a picture frame. The stage thrusts out into the audience, surrounded on three sides by banks of seats no more than five rows deep—with a maximum capacity of 166.

The space imposes conditions on Busfield’s play, and every other B Street show. The ticket income from 166 seats supports only plays with relatively small casts—A Lot of Life, which has five actors (four of them members of Actors’ Equity), is typical. Sets changes have to be quick and simple—A Lot of Life takes place in the hardware store, a living room and a hospital waiting room. Actors sometimes enter and exit using aisles shared with the audience. Busfield, having directed dozens of shows in the converted warehouse, knows what will work and what won’t in this space, and those conditions became an unstated but significant part of his script. The first draft of A Lot of Life came quickly, with Busfield finishing the last page in about six weeks.

Actors Rod Loomis and Eddie Jones work out their lines around the park bench that provides the sole location for Richard Broadhurst’s new play.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Richard Broadhurst began working on his play, Benched, about three years ago. The initial inspiration came from a local figure who produced one of Broadhurst’s other plays several years ago—Myrtle Stephens, the much-loved, matriarchal African-American actress and director of Celebration Arts Theatre, who died October 1. Stephens’ energy and optimism, based strongly in her faith, were the stuff of legend. (Little bookmarks handed out at her memorial service urged those in attendance not to mourn, but “get busy doing greater things.”)

Stephens, in person, was both caring and disarmingly direct. She sorted through the chat, located inner conflict, and helped anyone who came through the door of the theater settle their personal baggage. She was particularly acute when it came to situations and choices that people sometimes live to regret—choices that lead to career setbacks, family splits, self-destructive substance abuse, or trouble with the law. She helped members of her family, as well as Sacramento teens who turned up in Celebration Arts’ youth programs—even members of the audience who turned up at the theater with trouble on their mind. Stephens was always interested in forgiveness, redemption and the ability to make a fresh start in life.

Broadhurst wanted to write a play about someone like that. “Myrtle was the initial inspiration for the script,” he said.

Broadhurst sketched out the first seven or eight pages of the play, but then paused because he couldn’t quite see where the situation was leading.

“I scribble an idea down, leave it alone for a while, and when it crystallizes in my head, I sit down again and write a first draft.”

He completes his plays largely on instinct. “It’s never helpful for me to do an outline beforehand. I just like to be familiar with the characters, and let them take me where they want to take me.”

The urge to finish the piece was spurred when Broadhurst got a call from a producer in Los Angeles, who told him that Jack Klugman—who was finishing up a production of Death of a Salesman—was looking for something to do next, possibly in conjunction with Tony Randall, his partner in the old Odd Couple TV series.

At that point, the story began to jell around two male characters in their early 70s, sitting on a park bench in New York City (where Broadhurst lived and worked for most of his adult life). One is solitary—a prickly, dejected fellow who’s been hanging out in the park for 15 years. In fact, he’s come to think he owns the bench, even if it’s just through “squatter’s rights.”

Though this character (Max) is capable of a certain sort of bitter witticism, he is filled with regret—about a romance, decades ago, that didn’t work out; about a child from whom he’s alienated; about his presumed guilt in the accidental death of a loved one. It gradually becomes clear that he’s thinking about pulling the plug.

The other character, who approaches the park bench for the first time as the play begins, is a man of about the same age. The two men begin by exchanging short sentences, sometimes single words. As the conversation slowly warms, it becomes clear that the stranger has special knowledge, including some details about the life of the squatter on the bench—which makes the bench squatter suspicious.

The two men keep talking, and as a relationship cautiously develops, they discuss the past—both men’s past—including several things they have in common, as well as individual regrets. As it turns out, they have related needs as well. History is not rewritten, no previous deeds are reversed, and nobody goes sailing back on a guided tour of his past (as Scrooge does with the three Spirits of Christmas). Nonetheless, an opening emerges in which each man gets a fleeting opportunity to make peace with flawed decisions made years before, and move on.

Most of Broadhurst’s plays are dark, even gloomy. Freeze, produced locally a few years ago, was about a white cop and a young black man trapped together during the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. Other plays have titles like Mother, Mayhem.

Broadhurst knows plenty of people who have had a tough time in life. He earns a portion of his income teaching writing to inmates (including a number of “lifers”) at Folsom prison. He also works as a writing teacher and drama coach with groups of young men at the California Youth authority. “We did their version of A Christmas Carol, in which a kid gets thrown into detention on Christmas Eve. And on that night, he’s visited by spirits—Christmas Past being a homie who was killed on the street, and Christmas Future being where he’s going to end up if things don’t change.”

Benched, which finds its way to a redemptive conclusion, is considerably less grim than Broadhurst’s other plays. But even so, it has several reversals with dark underpinnings, carefully planted by the playwright, including (quite literally) a visitation by an Angel of Death.

After learning of Klugman’s interest, Broadhurst resumed work on the script, and finished Benched in a matter of weeks. He even ended up naming one of the main characters “Randall.” Klugman took a different project, but Broadhurst liked the play, and began sending it around to friends.

One of Broadhurst’s friends—actor Ed Asner, of the old Lou Grant TV series—put in a plug for Broadhurst and Benched with Peggy Shannon, artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company.

Shannon took the hint. She agreed to hear a reading of Benched by Broadhurst and local actor Loren Taylor. Shannon liked the play, made a few suggestions, and arranged for a second reading featuring Asner—an event that was at once a full-fledged tryout for the script and a fund-raiser for the Sacramento Theatre Company.

Shannon decided to proceed with a production. Subsequent events have reinforced Shannon’s sense that it was a good idea to do a play about second chances. “I had no way of knowing about September 11 when I chose to do this play. Given the light of recent circumstances, it has more resonance—looking at one’s life and having an opportunity to correct things. I think if more people had that opportunity, they would do things very differently in their lives.” Shannon—who’s had many shows that focused on female characters—was also attracted by the fact that Benched features older men. “It was a great opportunity to have a man’s point of view. So I picked it for all those reasons.”

Buck Busfield assembled the cast for A Lot of Life over a period of weeks. Actress Dana Brooke, a 1999 B Street apprentice who’s since joined Actors’ Equity and turned pro, was already in town to do a fall show at the B Street. She agreed to join the cast of A Lot of Life before Busfield had finished the script. Brooke plays the old Italian’s daughter, who’s been looking after her dad.

Busfield didn’t write the part with Brook specifically in mind, but after using her in five other shows, he didn’t worry. “She’s so reliable and versatile. I feel I can write anything and she can make it work.”

Actors Eddie Jones (left) and Rod Loomis (right) in rehearsal for <i>Benched</i>, with director Michael Butler in the background.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Brooke’s character needs to be attractive and sympathetic—both of the young male characters in the play are in love with her. But it’s more than a question of looking good. The character is making life choices—she’s thinking of moving out of Dad’s house and getting her own apartment, leading to some testy exchanges. Her tug of war with her father extends to romance. They have different ideas about what sort of man would make an appropriate husband.

Playing the old Italian is Christopher Thomas, a tall, gray-haired leading man who’s been on stage for decades. Thomas got his start in New York, training under legendary teacher Stella Adler, then moved to Los Angeles in 1963. Thomas has been working ever since, in numerous TV shows, and on stage. He’s done Shakespeare in California, and American plays in Britain.

This is Thomas’ first gig in Northern California. He took the role because it’s a departure: “Usually I do characters who are authority figures, decisive guys in charge of things. So when I heard that this character ran a little one-man hardware store, I jumped at that.” It’s also the first time Thomas has played an Italian (even though he’s part Italian himself, raised on the Italian side of the family).

Menacing the little hardware store is a developer, played by Sacramento actor Loren Taylor—the same man who participated in the first reading of Broadhurst’s Benched for Peggy Shannon. Taylor began adult life as an actor in New York, working steadily in summer stock and regional theaters, while trying out for Broadway and off-Broadway parts. But a growing family precipitated a transition to a more conventional job with regular paychecks. Taylor worked as a beer distributor and in an auto dealership, eventually taking a job as operations manager with a retailer in Sacramento.

About six years ago, Taylor decided to return to acting. He’s had several leading roles at River Stage; two supporting parts at the B Street, along with a holiday production as Scrooge, plus commercials and voice-overs.

When rehearsals began for A Lot of Life, the cast gathered in another old warehouse adjacent to the B Street Theatre. The space is slated to become the B Street’s second, 100-seat performance space sometime in early 2002—a project Busfield fondly refers to as “B-2.”

But in November, the room was a largely empty space in which Busfield fleshed out the show with his cast and crew.

Busfield likes to keep improving his scripts during the rehearsal process. As the actors work their way through scenes, he’ll cut a word or even a whole sentence—changes dutifully noted by an assistant at his side.

“Write those changes in pencil,” Busfield advises after one change. He sometimes reconsiders and reinstates the cuts.

Busfield thought long and hard about what sort of shading he wants from Loren Taylor as the developer. “Our hero, the owner of the little hardware store—he needs to make some internal changes in his life if he’s going to live at peace with himself. The function of Loren’s character, the developer, is to precipitate that change.

“But if Loren comes in too soft, the change in the hardware store owner will be too easy. And if Loren comes in too heavy, the change in the hardware store owner will be a no-brainer—too obvious. I’m trying to figure out the exact application of pressure to bring about the desired change.”

It’s a process. Taylor, who tried the scene with icy resolve, does his lines again with a whiff of cordiality.

Busfield makes a few more changes, then announces that he must leave for a meeting of the B Street’s board of directors, where he will likely discuss the opening of the “B-2” performance space, as well as long-term plans to acquire property for a new theater near Sutter Memorial Hospital.

Come evening, Busfield will sit down at the computer and update the script of A Lot of Life with the day’s changes. He’ll be back in the theater the next morning for rehearsals with the revisions.

Busfield also needs to read new scripts. Unlike most theaters, the B Street programs from show to show, rather than announcing a complete season. Busfield is still thinking about what to stage in January—a decision that’s becoming more complicated because soon, he hopes to be programming for two stages, rather than one.

Busfield is looking particularly hard for plays with racial diversity. The cast of A Lot of Life is all white. It’s five years since a Latino has had a significant role in a B Street show, and even longer since an African-American actor has appeared there. The B Street specializes in contemporary plays, in a city that’s racially diverse. The absence of Latino and African-American characters on their stage has drawn criticism.

Busfield doesn’t get defensive when the point is raised. “We know we need to do it. I’ve been looking for the right script, and we’re still looking—an accelerated search for something small and new that fits our facilities. I’ve put some staff on it, rather than waiting for playwrights to come in with scripts.”

It needs to be a script that will click with the B Street audience—which is, coincidentally, almost entirely white. “We did a Latino play a few years ago, Cloud Tectonics,” Busfield recalled. “It got very good reviews, but it just didn’t sell well. And we didn’t have a cash reserve to handle a show that didn’t sell.” Cloud Tectonics closed abruptly in mid-run, leaving the theater in a financial bind that lingered for months. The search for new material goes on. In the meantime, Busfield leaves for the board meeting, instructing the actors to keep running their lines.

The casting of Benched also got an assist from the playwright, even though he’s not directing. On a lark, Broadhurst called longtime friend Eddie Jones, an actor Broadhurst first met some decades back in New York. Jones, who’s done two Broadway shows, relocated to Los Angeles 11 years ago. He has a long list of film and TV credits, including the movie Sneakers, where he got to know Emmy-winning actor (thirty-something) and B Street founder Tim Busfield—the younger brother of Buck Busfield. Benched is a smaller show than Jones ordinarily does. “But I was attracted by the play, and Richard wanted me to come. I like his work so much.” Jones also liked the opportunity to do a leading character who’s past 65. “It isn’t common. Most people in the movie business are interested in young people, beauty, love.” For an older actor, “you get the dad, or the cop, or the detective.”

Jones is paired in Benched with another veteran, Rod Loomis, who’s done Broadway shows under directors Mike Nichols and Trevor Nunn, regional theater and TV parts. Loomis became a Sacramento resident about a year ago, moving down from Tahoe because his wife, a pastor, was called by a local congregation. “It puts me closer to an airport,” Loomis said. “I have agents in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and I go where my agents tell me to go if it’s an interesting part.”

Christopher Thomas (left) rehearses with Loren Taylor (right) in costume as the developer Dell. Director Buck Busfield looks on from the background.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Benched caught his attention. “I did a lot of leading roles in musicals in my 40s and early 50s. But as you get into your late 50s and early 60s, the leading roles are not there as often. This was a wonderful opportunity for me and Eddie to do very interesting roles.” And while a musical usually represents a much larger salary, the role in Benched gives Loomis a chance to work in the same city where he lives.

Stephanie Gularte, a local actress, plays a young woman who bears a striking (even moving) resemblance to one of the old men’s old flames.

Gularte only has a single scene in Benched, but it’s triggering a career move for her. She has already appeared at the B Street and Sacramento Theatre Company (as well as in many community productions), earning glowing reviews in recent roles. Gularte will join Actors’ Equity as a result of her small part in Broadhurst’s new play.

“What I gain is the commitment to being a professional actor, and the protection of being in the union. It’s not a hobby, not just for fun,” she said.

But paradoxically, turning pro may mean that local audiences will see Gularte less often on stage. “The downside is that if I want to continue working as an actress in Sacramento, I’m probably going from five or six shows a year to maybe one or two shows a year.” There are only so many union jobs locally. Taking union jobs out of town will mean figuring out childcare arrangements for Gularte’s 4-year-old daughter.

Benched will be staged in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s secondary performance space, known as Stage Two—a black box studio theater inside an aging cinder block building on H Street. The whole complex is slated for a long overdue renovation, to begin in March. Stage Two is a small space, with only three rows of seats (90 seats total) wrapped around a broad, shallow stage. The script makes few demands in terms of props—a park bench, a sandwich and a deck of cards.

Director Michael Butler, who lives in San Jose, and his cast began rehearsals in late November. A prime concern was how the characters should move within the narrow confines of the stage.

Everyone in rehearsal is even more aware that the play’s success depends on the chemistry between Jones and Loomis as the story unfolds. Jones, who plays the bench squatter, needs to be crusty and skeptical—but he also needs to believably emerge from his long-spun cocoon of depression partway through the play. Loomis needs to strike a careful balance as well—retaining some mystery about who he is and why he’s there, while simultaneously embodying enough sincerity and credibility that he can bring the audience (and the skeptical Max) along.

Butler, the director, had Broadhurst on-hand for many of the early rehearsals, making slight revisions as the actors found their ways into the roles. In the process, Loomis became a particularly clumsy card player in one fateful scene—Loomis counts out the cards like a rank beginner.

Another suggestion comes from stage manager Pat Parkins. Why not use a simple prop—a peanut butter sandwich—to underline the continuity to a scene in which a young character walks off stage and immediately returns, reappearing as the same character, but in a different (and much older) body. Everyone likes the idea; it goes into the play.

Butler likes having the playwright involved in this process—though he knows it cuts both ways. “You don’t want to have to run to Daddy. But it is undeniably useful, because with any new script there are little changes that the playwright would want to make.” (And Broadhurst has made many.)

Butler—like Jones, Loomis and Broadhurst—got his start in New York, playing in rock bands (rather than Broadway musicals) before embarking on a career as an actor and director. “In a way, the play is kind of a Valentine to New York City, and that beautiful park. It’s a good reminder that the city is beautiful, and full of potential magic. It’s a play with a good message—hope and love are renewable resources.”

As Benched went into its second week of rehearsals at the Sacramento Theatre Company, A Lot of Life opened at the B Street on November 28.

Buck Busfield greeted the Wednesday audience with the announcement that additional performances had been added in coming weeks—"the maximum allowed under the union.” Times are good for the theater, it would seem.

In passing, Busfield also mentioned that he’s still making changes to the play. “In fact, we gave the cast several new pages just last night.” Chances are that audiences who saw previews will notice even more changes if they go back to see the play again in late December.

Audience response was warm on opening night. Dana Brooke, whom many recognize from previous appearances, gets an appreciative hand as the actors take their bows. There’s a pleasant conversational buzz as people head for the exits after the applause dies down.

The reviews, as they appear over the next few days, are a mixed bag. The critic from the Sacramento Bee is the harshest, complimenting the actors but knocking the ending as “weakly fueled” by a character transformation that was “not satisfying.” This writer, covering the show for the News & Review, takes a somewhat more favorable line, comparing the first half to a simple situation comedy, but suggesting that the second half—in which each character deals with a personal setback, and rebounds—resembles the bittersweet ending of a late Shakespearean romance.

Reviews notwithstanding, A Lot of Life draws well during the 10 days, playing to full houses on several evenings. Subscribers call in steadily to schedule their seats. Single ticket sales were slow after the review in the Bee … though things pick up as word of mouth gets around. Most people who see the show come away liking it.

Busfield, having absorbed the reviews and observed audience response during several performances, confides that he will make further adjustments to the script after the show closes in January, with an eye toward future productions elsewhere.

Meanwhile, over at the Sacramento Theatre Company, the director, playwright and cast are going into the last week of rehearsals for Benched, which previews on December 19 and opens on the 22nd. They’re putting the final shading on the characterizations, working in gestures, polishing, eliminating a prop here and there, with Broadhurst making revisions all the while. Everyone is hoping that the reviews will be favorable; nobody knows for sure. A successful production in Sacramento could lead to new productions of the play in other cities (with the strong possibility of more work for those involved)—and quite understandably, everyone wants that.

A new play is a chance, usually a long shot (many never see a second production), but a wonderful thing when it comes through. Playwrights are a little like early 20th-century aircraft designers (and they’ve been at it for a whole lot longer)—they want to know what will fly.

The B Street Theatre’s production of A Lot of Life plays through January 6.

The Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of Benched previews December 19 and opens December 22, continuing through February 24.