Before we get too far in with the intricacies of it all, let’s dispense with the facts. “The Prompter,” now staging its world premier at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through June 16, is the best play I’ve seen in years. Buy your tickets and go see it now.
The two-character comedy — written by Wade Dooley, and starring himself and the incomparable Tovah Feldshuh, directed by Bay Street Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, and with voices by Julia Motyka and Adam Petherbridge — deserves standing-room-only houses every single night that it plays.
Based on Dooley’s real-life experiences behind the curtain on several Broadway shows, this play tells the story of Irene Young, a grand dame who has seen and done it all. With a career that has spanned decades, including tremendous theatrical and film success and even her own short-lived television series, she’s decided to make one last Broadway appearance.
Four decades after her Broadway debut and now in her twilight years, the legendary actress is hell-bent to trod the boards one last time. The only problem is that she can’t remember her lines.
Enter Wade, a young actor with stars in his eyes and dreams of his own stage success, who is hired to feed Irene her lines. Desperate for her acceptance and affection, he sees Irene as a grandmotherly figure, though she’s anything but. Caustic and curmudgeonly, the celebrated actress is the definition of diva.
At the beginning of the show, Dooley, as Wade, says that the story isn’t about Irene but it’s awfully hard to not focus on this complex character. Especially thanks to Feldshuh’s tour-de-force talent in bringing her to life. Her riveting portrayal is the single most accomplished character study and performance I’ve seen in decades.
The six time Emmy- and Tony nominee, and winner of multiple theatrical awards (four Drama Desk-, four Outer Critic Circle-, two Dramalogues, an Obie, a Lucille Lortel- and the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress, to name a few) doesn’t just command the stage, she succeeds in making the audience fall in love with her not-really-so-likable character. Her prodigious gifts allow her to move gracefully, engagingly and utterly believably from mood to mood and beat to beat through myriad emotions and characters — making an incredibly meaty role look delightfully, and deceptively, easy.
All of this praise for his legendary co-star is not to slight Dooley (“Jersey Boys,” “Broadway Bares: Rock Hard” and “NEWsical the Musical”) for his own considerable talent, which is on full display here. Funny, charming, relatable and real, as this heightened version of himself, he is the heart and soul of this show.
Tailor-made for himself as a result of being “too old to play young and too young to play old,” Dooley’s real brilliance shines through in his writing. His experiences, refined and stripped bare, have provided us the opportunity to ostensibly sneak backstage and see what happens behind the curtain. Not only are there some delicious tidbits and showbiz insider stuff here that he shares without being off-putting — certainly a skill — his writing allows us to witness the push and pull of a deeply layered relationship that is heartwarming in glimpses and heartbreaking in actuality.
Both characters are written and performed with such verisimilitude that the play feels innately real. A hearty round of applause to Dooley, not just for writing an exceptional play that showcases well developed (and oh-so entertaining) characters, but for lovingly and respectfully creating what could easily be the role of a lifetime for many a woman of a certain age.
Premiering to the world at Bay Street, “The Prompter” first appeared at the theater’s “Title Wave” fifth annual New Works Festival in 2018.The production features set design by Kevin Depinet, lighting design by Mike Billings, costume design by Tracy Christensen, sound design by Jon Weston, wig, hair, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas, and props designed by Andrew Diaz. The stage manager is Denise Yaney, music consultant is Ben Kiley, movement consultant is Shannon Lewis, and casting is by Binder Casting. Bravo to all on an extraordinary show.
Now, with all this well-earned praise to heap upon such a deserving show, and most especially for a first-time produced playwright, there are a few very minor things to actually constructively critique. Personally, I didn’t mind the generous sprinkling of “F bombs” and other such blue language, but do feel quite strongly that the use of “the P word” toward the end of the play felt false to the character and gratuitous. There are other ways to make that particular point. And Wade’s ending monologue could be tightened just a bit, but otherwise we are talking a solid 90-plus minutes of sheer perfection.
Bottom line: Bursting with joy, “The Prompter” is bright, merry, entertaining, earnest, and heartwarming without being hokey, which is no mean feat. I’ll say it again: it’s the best show I’ve seen in years.
“The Prompter” stages at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through June 16. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., with select Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and select Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $125.For additional information and reservations, visit bystreet.org.