The American Theatre of Actors is located at 314 West 54th Street. The same building as Midtown Community Court. During the day, you have to pass through a metal detector to enter, emptying your pockets into a plastic tray and running your bag through an x-ray machine, under the supervision of NYPD. Fortunately, when court is not in session, you can come and go freely, allowing for a relatively normal evening of theater. Next door, however, is the 18th Precinct, and a common scene outside ATA is an eager group of family and friends surrounding a radiant young actress who clutches a bouquet to her bosom while, in the background, a kid with his head bowed gets hauled in. When you tell people your show is at ATA, they usually say something like, “Is that the theater by the police station?”
ATA gained some notoriety when Urinetown was produced in the Chernuchin Theater, an Off-Broadway classified theater, in one of its incarnations on the way to Broadway. My first play, Seven Dog Years, was produced concurrently by ATA in the Sargent Theater, the Off-Off Broadway theater, one floor above. I’d often nod to the Urinetown cast in passing, as they smoked cigarettes out front or BSed in the stairwell. Occasionally, you could hear the swell of the Urinetown orchestra during my show. Usually at the most inappropriate moment. It frustrated me at the time, but now it makes for an amusing anecdote.
James Jennings, who wears his khakis like they’re a uniform, is the founder and Artistic Director of ATA, and one of the great storytellers. ATA produces twenty or so plays a year, and has been in business for over thirty years, so James has a million stories. Since ATA produced my first two plays, Seven Dog Years and Great Kills, and my third play, Asterisk was produced in association with ATA, I’ve been privy to a few of them. He’s quick to rattle off a list of the actors who got their start at ATA: Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Spacey, Dan Lauria. The list goes on. But this story involves Elliott Gould, who never actually performed at ATA.
One afternoon, following an Asterisk rehearsal, I happen upon the producer/star, Dean, in the Artistic Director’s office, engaging James in what appears to be a serious conversation. James is behind his desk, and Dean’s leaning over the desk, both hands flat on the desktop, elbows locked and hyper-extended, like he’s holding up a lot of weight. They’re whispering. I duck away, but James has spotted me, and calls out, “Can I help you?” Stepping into the doorway, I apologize for interrupting, explain that I just wanted to say goodbye to Dean. James cordially invites me in. I enter, and sit at one of the two chairs in front of the desk. Dean takes the other one. James’ office looks like a garage sale, cluttered with props and memorabilia from the hundreds of shows ATA has produced over the years. Stacked TVs make a totem pole in a corner. Swords lean against a wall, like pool cues in a local bar. Hanging by the door, is a knockoff Jackson Pollock that would only be passable from the last few rows of the theater.
I’m admiring the collection when James asks how casting went. I tell him that I’m really excited with the actors we’ve found. He then asks how I like the director. The casual tone of his voice, in contrast to the frankness of the question, gives me pause. James nods as he waits for an answer. Dean also awaits my response. There’s a bond between them, like a shared glance, though they don’t actually look at one another. Playing it close to the vest, I tell him that I have faith Jason will get the show up on its feet. This is the slightest vote of confidence one can afford a director, so James stares me down. My expression grows more serious. I preface my next statement with a disclaimer about how I wouldn’t bring this up unless he’d asked, and explain how I feel I can confide in him because he’s my mentor. Finally, I say, “But if I have a concern, it’s that he’s interpreting it as though it’s a straight drama, where there’s a lot of humor.” James considers this, then says, “If I remember your play, it’s not very jokey. The humor comes more out of the characters.” “It’s not a sitcom,” I say. “The humor will come,” he assures me. “That’s often the last thing a director will pull out of it. Wait and see what it’s like when he’s got it up to speed.” This breaks the tension, and Dean and I both relax in our chairs. James, too, seems more comfortable as he rocks in his swivel chair, and proceeds to offer a tutorial on producing theater, which leads to the story of Elliott Gould and The Men In the Truck.
In the ’70s, ATA produced a show called The Men In the Truck, an original play by a first-time playwright. It was about the four guys in a remote truck, the crew broadcasting a football game. It got rave reviews from The Post, The News, and The Times. This drew the interest of a producer, who raised the money to take it to Broadway. The one concession: the lead be replaced with a bankable name. Enter Elliott Gould. Gould was a huge star at the time. Trapper John, and Philip Marlowe, and Ted, of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. He could open a show. But Gould was a movie star, not a stage actor. And, as James puts it, “So drunk and high all the time, he couldn’t remember his own name, much less his lines.” Out of desperation, the script was rewritten, cutting Gould’s part down in order to make it easier for him to learn. Just prior to Opening Night, Gould was fired. Another actor was brought in, but by that time the script was a mess, and the poor guy never stood a chance. The show got panned by the same critics who loved it at ATA, and ran for exactly one night on Broadway. It never got produced again, and the writer never had another success.
Asterisk did open. The cast was inspired. And it was pretty funny. Audiences received it enthusiastically, and Backstage gave it a good review. It hasn’t been picked up yet, though. Maybe it’s not good enough. Or commercial enough. It might have a better shot if it were a problem play. But, certainly, its failure is at least in part due to how, on the day we got the fliers back from the printer, the director asked, “Who do I send my bill to?” Jason was working under a verbal contract that guaranteed no salary, and his demand came out of nowhere. It was a no-win situation. If we paid, it would put the production in the red, virtually eliminating our plans for publicity, and making all for naught. If we didn’t pay, Jason was going to walk, along with, we feared, the actors whose confidence he’d gained, and the show would fold. This was a stressful time for Dean and myself, with a lot of desperate phone calls, and arguing, culminating in Dean driving us to Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat on Staten Island, on an impromptu midnight mission to a stone grotto encircling an ancient evergreen tree and moonlit statue of Jesus, where he prayed for Jesus to come to Jason in a dream and rid him of “the evilness.” We paid Jason. Leaving the trunk of Dean’s Buick full of fliers. I wonder if someday this story will be part of James’ oeuvre?