By TOM DUPREE
Many Players have trod the boards over the years, of course. But only a select few have done so at the club itself. That theatrical treat was regularly realized by the highly popular Plays By Players series.
In 1994, Player John Kallas suggested having Player playwrights, actors and directors collaborate on informal readings of the playwrights’ work. The idea was to help the authors develop their plays, introduce them to Player actors and directors, and generally to “promote camaraderie among the creative members of the Club.”
This wonderful notion was acted on immediately. Michael Tolan, an accomplished actor with a long string of stage and film credits (including All That Jazz, John And Mary, and a three-episode stint as Mary Tyler Moore’s college-professor boyfriend on her hit tv sitcom), was asked to lead the project, which was expanding creatively. Now the series would also include the works of great club-member playwrights of the past, including Eugene O’Neill, Robert Sherwood and Philip Barry. These would be rehearsed, professionally staged readings — as Plays By Players described itself, work “written, directed and performed by Players.”
Plays By Players opened in 1995-1996 with four plays: two by contemporary playwrights, M. Z. Ribalow’s Good Night, Vienna (with Werner Klemperer as Sigmund Freud and Martha Plimpton as Amelia Earhart) and John Kallas’s The Corporal; and two classic revivals, Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses and Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean. O’Neill’s one-act Shell Shock also got a reading.
The series was immediately popular and stayed that way. In its first five years alone, Plays By Players produced readings of 21 plays by 19 Player playwrights, using 81 Player actors along with 16 guest performers, and 10 Player directors. As the productions became ever more elaborate, many other Players were involved in backstage roles. The house was usually packed full.
Musical theatre was introduced into the mix with the second-season production of Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill’s Lost In The Stars, directed by Elizabeth Falk. After the March 1998 performance of Moss Hart’s Light Up The Sky, the audience was treated to an interview with Kitty Carlisle Hart.
A clever adjunct to Plays By Players was its “First Course” presentations. At the time, dinner was served every Thursday night in the Dining Room, the usual venue for PBP productions. So the audience was invited to “come for the first course, stay for dinner.” On those nights the troupe would present short one-acts in the Great Hall just before the meal.
Perhaps the apex of Plays By Players stagecraft was its January 2003 production of Guys & Dolls, which looks quite confident judging from production photos but, according to director Kristine Lewis, was put together “all in ten rehearsals.” Kristine also directed the similarly grand Fiorello!, whose lyricist Sheldon Harnick was in the audience.
Brenda Gelles, the “resident stage manager” for the group starting in 1999, remembers the Plays By Players days fondly. “It functioned like a rep company,” she says. “There was terrific camaraderie, we all laughed together.” Tolan, she says, was “very brusque, but he had the softest heart you’ve ever seen.” And, as could also be said about everybody else involved, “he loved the club.”
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com. Michael Tolan starred in one of his favorite episodes of The Outer Limits, "The Zanti Misfits."