SENTIMENTALITY ONSTAGE CAN BE WONDERFUL LIFE

There was a night when the bed hit a panel. That was funny. It was supposed to roll onstage, where a young actor holding an old actor in his arms would lay the man on the bed.

Unfortunately, because the bed had moved too fast and smacked into the sliding panel and was now stuck, half onstage, half off, the young actor had no place to go. His arms began to tremble. So he turned while holding the old man and exited stage right.

And we sat there, looking at the bed.

And sat there, looking at the bed.

And finally someone whispered, “I don’t think this is part of the play.”

I will not soon forget that night, nor will I forget many others in the nearly two-year process we have finally completed in taking the book “Tuesdays With Morrie” to the stage. It opened last week at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York, and as a first-time playwright and a guy who mostly thought “serious theater” was something you went to when the musicals were sold out, I have had quite an education.

I have learned, for example, that hearing aids go off in the middle of a show. One woman’s hearing aid squealed so loud and long, it was like a mouse had been squeezed in a fist. And when someone asked her to fix it she went,
“WHAAAAT?”

There was another night when the actor playing Morrie — an amazingly talented veteran named Alvin Epstein — got a piece of egg salad caught in his throat.

They don’t teach you that in Drama 101.

Maybe home ec.

Rewriting and more rewriting

I also learned that you don’t just slap a show together. You write it, you have a reading in a rehearsal room, you rewrite it, read it in another rehearsal room, you find actors, you take them to a small theater in the boondocks, you try it out, you rewrite it, have another reading, find another theater in the boondocks, rewrite it . . .

Finally, if you are lucky, you get to New York, where critics wait with sharpened knives, and plays often open and close with the life span of a fruit fly.

Here is what I learned about actors: They are extremely gifted, sensitive people. They can emote with their eyes or their fingers. They also don’t like to lose lines. When we cut or changed a line from the play, we endured negotiations that U.N. weapons inspectors would consider difficult.

“You know,” Jon Tenney, the actor who played me, once said, “I’m not sure my character would say that line.”

“Jon,” I said. “I am your character. And I said it last week.”

Sentiment is like rat poison

Lucky for us, our actors’ talent was, as one critic later put it, “beyond praise.” Our director was top-notch, as was my fellow playwright. There were no major battles, no ego clashes, lots of laughs, and a shared feeling that a special story about a special old teacher was worth doing.

So we made it to opening night. We had a full house. They gave the guys a standing ovation. There were flowers and gift baskets and toasts.

The critics, tough as they are, still mostly liked it. Some loved it. A few didn’t care for it. I found that to these people, the word sentimental is the same as rat poison, which is funny, because the most beloved movies are often sentimental (or didn’t you like “It’s a Wonderful Life”), as are the most beloved songs, books and musicals. Then I remembered these same people gave the Tony Award to a play about a man having sex with a goat.

So apparently, it’s trite if you say “I love you” to a dying man but fine if you say it to a farm animal.

Ah, well. As I say, most people loved it, and I have to say it was a whale of a ride. I met people who so love this world — including playwrights Herb Gardner and Jeff Daniels — that they can’t help but invite you into it.

And so I say to anyone thinking of getting involved in the theater: It’s a blast. Do it if you can. Just make sure your beds are slow and your panels are fast. Not the other way around.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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