Fort Worth — Where does a play begin?
Starbright & Vine, Richard J. Allen’s comic look at a once-famous, now fading comedian who gets another chance at glory, opens in a world premiere at Stage West later this month. And while he can’t pinpoint exactly where and when inspiration struck, playwright Allen thinks it might have been great-uncle Irving who started it all.
“My grandfather’s brother Irving, born about 1910 and growing up in Brooklyn, wanted to be in vaudeville,” Allen told TheaterJones in a coffee shop interview this week. “The story is that he auditioned for Eddie Cantor himself, and did get into the company—but his mom, my great-grandmother, hid the letter of acceptance. She didn’t want him to do that. So Uncle Irving was definitely a missed comedian, and he was a very funny man. I have some old [film] footage my father sent me of Irving horsing around a pool in Miami with Sid Caesar.”
Uncle Irving (who changed the family name from “Itzkowitz” to “Allen” when he auditioned for Cantor) never gave up his love of comedy, and passed it along to his great-nephew Richard, who lived “on Long Island near JFK airport—the movie Goodfellas takes place where I grew up.” He remembers Uncle Irving playing him comedy albums at family gatherings, especially one “called When You’re In Love The Whole World is Jewish, with Lou Jacobi and lots of other actors doing Jewish humor. My dad loved theater and shows, too—and I really fell in love with musical theater."
Having caught the theater bug early, Allen says “I always thought I’d be performing somewhere, someday. Seriously, the fact that I’m not going to be hosting The Tonight Show, or that the phone doesn’t ring asking me to host the Oscars, that’s still…aargh!” But his early acting forays brought mixed notices—“they let me play Bottom in Midsummer and all the other actors said I wasn’t acting!”—and Allen found that “as things turned out, I loved teaching more than anything.” A good thing, since Allen’s day job is teaching at TCU, where he’s a popular professor (and former chair) of the university’s Film, Television and Digital Media department.
But he also loved to write, and one early theater memory is telling: “I saw Fiddler on the Roof in New York when I was eight years old, and I remember thinking while everyone was applauding wildly for the actors, ‘Well, the actors didn’t make that up. Why are they clapping for them?’” At 13, he attended the theater camp “that became Stage Door Manor—the one the movie Camp is about.” Allen graduated from NYU and earned an M.F.A. from the playwriting program at Indiana University; he knew, he says, that writing and teaching would both, somehow, be part of his life.
In “the business," Allen says, the competition is always stiff, but if you “work hard and are very flexible about what you’ll do, you’ll probably get work.” Allen is living proof of that, having kept a variety of professional careers going in the course of one very busy life. In Chicago he worked in public relations, in L.A. turned out “spec” scripts for films and sitcoms, and on both coasts wrote for numerous daytime TV series. He was head writer for Days of Our Lives, and won two Emmys for his work on As the World Turns.
And all along the way, he wrote plays—from The Man Who Killed Rock Monenoff, produced at Atlanta’s Theatre-in-the-Square in 1989, to the recent The Seduction and Deception of Mozart, put up by University of Texas at Arlington’s Mainstage Theatre in 2012.
On Starbright and Stage West
Allen says he’s “delighted” to have Stage West co-producer Jim Covault directing the play, and with a cast he loves. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had four stellar actors really bringing themselves to a play, drawing out so many colors in the characters.”
Starbright & Vine, he says, “is the story of Marty Vine, a comedian who had a hit variety show in the ‘50s, and a sitcom in the ‘60s that ran for years.” Vine, Allen says, is partly based on once-rising comedian named Jackie Kahane—Allen’s agent in L.A. for a few years—who was the opening act for Elvis Presley’s later concert tours and gave the eulogy at The King’s funeral. The fictional Vine is both a great comedy talent and a very difficult man; his illegitimate son is “the only one of his kids who still speaks to him.” Out of the blue, the son tells Vine he’s being offered the Best TV Comedian spot for a PBS “Best of the 20th Century” retrospective to be filmed at the Kennedy Center.
“Why me?” ask Vine. Turns out, he’s the “best not so dead comedian”; the show’s producers need someone who’s still alive, can perform in the show—and they want new material.
Vine, who knows his mind and memory are more than a little shaky, wants to turn them down. But when his son pairs him with a former child star turned comedy writer, he’s forced to give it a try. They’re both antisocial—but Marty Vine still has all the charm that made him a star, and “he’s revisiting all of it via this younger woman” who might—or might not—help him to be the Comeback Kid, if only for one night. Says Allen: “It’s a little bit of Sunshine Boys—getting the act together again—with a bit of sexual tension thrown in.”
Allen mentions he was thinking of the great Sid Caesar last week—and heard the next day that the classic comedian had died at age 91.
“I knew as I wrote the script that I could never mention the name of Sid Caesar—because clearly he would be the one who’d get that award! But now his name is going into the play on the list of great departed comedians. I don’t even want to think I have that kind of influence!”
Starbright & Vine won’t mark the first time Allen’s had a play at Stage West. In 1995, not long after he and his family came to Fort Worth 21 years ago (wife Sheri is the cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington), Stage West did a staged reading of Allen’s play Seducing Sally. (Fort Worth Theatre mounted a full production in 1999.) He “borrowed” the Stage West space again for an after-hours run of his magnus-opus musical, Mildred (based on the film Mildred Pierce) several years ago—but admits he may have gone overboard…a bit.
“I thought I was writing Les Miz,” Allen laughs. “We were going to workshop Mildred and then shorten it—but somehow, we forgot about the shortening, and the thing ran nearly four hours!” Stage West got over it, apparently; Allen had the chance to direct late Stage West founder Jerry Russell for his last appearance in the theater’s Acting With the Stars series—and Russell and current Stage West co-producer Dana Schultes did “a great job” with an early staged reading of Starbright & Vine.
Allen says he’s “very proud of the work”—which is a bit of a departure from his usual style, driven less by plot and more by vivid characterization.
“It’s the first play I’ve written in a long time where there is no character that’s me,” he laughs. “In many of my plays, the characters know they’re in a play. They speak directly to the audience. But not in this one, and that was a big deal for me. I wrote great characters for this play, starting with two characters who are so strong actors could play them whatever the story was. I feel it’s the best thing I’ve written—and I think at age 54 I’m allowed to say that!”