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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

MONSTER TIME – 20 year anniversary (part 2)

A week after that disastrous first night, the show opened with a gala event. Eric Douglas brought his own publicist into the production and they pulled out the stops, fielding celebrities galore to sop up free champagne and vodka. I had already hired David Rothenberg, who had produced the prison drama “The Fortune in Men’s Eyes” back in the 1960s and had founded the Fortune Society, which helped ex-cons acclimate and re-enter society when they got out of the joint. He was also a theatrical press agent. David was the perfect choice to promote “Monster Time.”

Unfortunately, Eric believed that the only press should be about him. He pulled some of the most underhanded behavior I have ever experienced to achieve this. First, though, Rothenberg tried to coordinate with Eric’s publicist. There was a clash of egos, and when it comes to ego-clashes the Douglas clan always wins. Nothing the show’s publicist did was good enough. Eric demanded a list of the reviewers who had been invited. Then, unbeknown to me, he called them all and canceled their invitations. Apparently, he felt he wasn’t ready to be reviewed by the New York press.

Without reviews, the play would never get published. I had spent eight years writing and rewriting this script. It had started with 20 characters and ended with 3. It was a powerful piece, if audience reactions were any indicator. As recently as last year, somebody who had seen the show went all floral on me with compliments when discovering that I was the author of this show. And it was the first attempt by a playwright to address the issue of the death penalty since it had been reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.

I don’t want to rip Eric too much, as he died 5 years ago, at the age of 46. He was an unhappy man, apparently addicted to pills and obese, by all accounts. He died of a drug overdose, and newspaper accounts at the time said he weighed 300 pounds. He was about 5’6” tall, if that tells you anything.

The funny thing is, I eventually came to appreciate his performance in the show. He really began to grasp the character and gave it everything he had onstage.

Don Hannah, his co-star, was seething with jealousy at the way Eric was manipulating the press coverage. Hannah came to me and said if I didn’t replace Eric, he – Hannah – would shut the show down. I told him he was crazy and he quit. He was another spoiled rich kid who thought he could buy some credibility as an artist, based on his family connections. It seems he dropped out of show business, which is probably a good thing for him and certainly a good thing for the world of theater. There’s a Canadian playwright with the same name, so please don’t confuse the two.

Eric immediately found another actor whose name escapes me. He stepped into the role but was a slow line learner and had to be on book the first weekend.

In an effort to get some kind of review, I had called Victor Navasky, who was editor of The Nation and cajoled him into sending his theater critic, the late Tom Disch, a dedicated and talented writer best known for being the author of “The Brave Little Toaster.” This was before Hannah bailed. So Tom showed up on the first night the new actor was in the show. I had to get up in front of the audience and make an announcement that due to a cast change, and there being no understudies – as is typical of Off off Broadway productions – the actor playing Walker would be on book for the performance. Tom got up and walked out. (I saw him a few weeks later and he explained that there was no way he could review the show in that shape, and anyway, he had another event that he really wanted to go to but Victor had been forceful when assigning the review. Tom was a nice guy and I understood completely.)

Thanks to David Rothenberg’s efforts early on, Jerry Tallmer had written a profile piece for the NY Post about me and the play and how I came to write it – which is a whole other story I’ll relate when blogging about my first ever production as an adult. Likewise, David sent a newly released convicted killer to see the show. He was fascinated by the show and came night after night. The guy had done time for being one of the two assassins of Malcolm X. Eric hooked onto this guy, took him out to fancy restaurant for lunch, and got an item on Page 6. Unfortunately, this guy had some serious enemies and he had to disappear for awhile, according to Rothenberg.

Meanwhile, thanks to the piece in the Post, I was beginning to receive correspondence from convicts around the country, asking me to read their poems as part of the show, asking me to send them money, all sorts of crazy stuff. It was truly becoming a wild ride.

Two more events happened that were classics. Eric went on the Howard Stern radio show for 3 hours one morning and pumped his role in the show. This was fine, except that he repeatedly said that the playwright did not want his name mentioned. This was obviously payback for some slight perceived by this member of one of Hollywood’s royal families. I was stunned but let it slide. There was no undoing what had become a disaster on every front and there was only one more weekend of performances left. Eric promised to make it up to me by getting his father to back a further run of the show. That was a laugh.

There was one final event to come though – Kirk Douglas and his wife came to see the show. The night they arrived, Eric was in a tizzy. He wouldn’t have dinner with his parents unless his lawyer was present. It was hilarious to see how these people "related" to each other.

Before I close, I have to give some kudos to my wife, who was truly the best thing in the show, as the hallucinatory chorus figure. She had a difficult make up job and had to put up with me and those two spoiled rich brats. A lesser performer would have walked, I'm sure.

Over the next three or four years, various attempts at putting the show up again came to naught. The Living Theater was going to do a production with the late Bertrand Castelli, one of the original producers of “Hair”, directing but nothing came of that for reasons that aren’t worth going into here. (I'm way past my daily word limit and my repeated use of the phrase "the late" is kind of unnerving. Am I that old?) Finally, David D. Wright, a radio producer and playwright, aired a radio drama version of “Monster Time” on WBAI in Manhattan. David is an incredible character in his own right and an artist who loves to help other artists. We’re still friends and I’ll have more to say about him in the future.

Anyway, “Monster Time” – as apt a title as ever was given a drama – on so many levels.

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