By Annette Hinkle
Back in early March, right before COVID-19 shut down the world and live theater right along with it, director John Gould Rubin, a founding member and artistic director of The Private Theatre in Manhattan, hosted a play reading featuring a script by Joy Behar.
Among those who came to hear the reading was Josh Gladstone, artistic director of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater.
“That’s how we met,” explained Rubin. “Joy and he knew each other from the Hamptons. Then the pandemic hit and they were starting to do benefits and we talked about doing the play as a benefit.”
Initially, many actors and directors looked in that direction — hoping to transfer their theatrical offerings from the stage to the small screen. But if this extended shutdown has taught Rubin anything, it’s that full-length plays don’t always translate well to computer viewing because they can feel much too long when audiences watch them on Zoom.
“So we thought maybe it would be better to do shorter and more diverse pieces,” he said.
Fortunately for Rubin and Guild Hall’s loyal audience members, Behar is not only the Emmy-winning co-host of the ABC daytime talk show “The View,” but she is also a prolific playwright with a treasure trove of insightful and humorous theatrical material in her repertoire. She was more than happy to oblige by sharing the work, and that’s how “A Totally Disrespectful Evening of Short Plays by Joy Behar,” a virtual benefit reading for Guild Hall, was born.
Directed by Rubin, the theatrical evening, which will also benefit the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center and JBJ Soul Kitchen, takes place via Zoom on Sunday, October 25, at 8 p.m. and it features a star-studded cast performing five of Behar’s comedic pieces. Behar herself will be among the performers, along with a who’s who list of talent from the film, television and theater world, including Bob Balaban, Lorraine Bracco, Chris Bauer, Dylan McDermott, Susie Essman, Rachel Dratch, Robert Klein and Brenda Vaccaro, among others.
While it may have been a bit clunky initially, it’s somewhat amazing to consider how readily and successfully the theater world and its players have adapted to working remotely with their brethren in far flung locales. That’s certainly true of Rubin and Balaban, who spoke by conference call last week about the upcoming Guild Hall benefit.
“My career’s become Zoom,” admitted Rubin from the rural location in the Shawangunk Mountains where he is currently living and working — some 80 miles north of the New York City theater scene. “Everything I’m doing is on Zoom. Either I’m using Zoom for meetings or preparing for shows that are being delayed and don’t yet have a date.”
While Broadway theaters had hoped to be able to reopen their doors by March, given how the pandemic continues to grow, that now seems like a pipe dream. A couple weeks ago, The Broadway League announced that all Broadway performances are now canceled at least through May 30 of next year. Rubin’s best guess for theater returning to New York is sometime next fall, though he suspects that non-profit theaters may have a bit more latitude in starting back up again.
In the meantime, Rubin goes about his business doing everything he usually does for work — albeit it on Zoom.
“I’ve been teaching, directing and producing — and it’s all virtual,” said Rubin.
“I had no idea that’s where you were,” noted Balaban when he learned that Rubin was riding out the pandemic upstate. For his part, Balaban has been holed up here at his home on the East End for the duration.
“I’ve been out here since March 10,” said Balaban, a close friend and poker playing buddy of Behar’s, who has a home in Sag Harbor. “I came out here thinking this would be over in a week or two.”
That, of course, was not the case, and settling into the virtual way of life has become integral to the producers, directors and actors like Balaban, who make their living in the theater, film and television world.
“I’ve been developing things mostly for television, some for theater, but knowing how in theater it takes a long time to develop material, why not start now and get ready?” said Balaban, who as of late, has been kept busy recording voiceovers for cartoon productions. In the past, he has contributed his vocal talents to HBO’s animated series “Animals,” and he was also was the voice of King, one of the canines in Wes Anderson’s 2018 animated feature “Isle of Dogs.”
“It’s complicated, but SAG [Screen Actors Guild] has jumped in and is very protective about where we can do our recordings,” explained Balaban. “Every week, they send 300 pounds of equipment and you have to set it up and you record.
“Then, you wait for them to take the box away.”
Locally speaking, Balaban has also been directing, and in late August, lent his talents to Bay Street Theater by curating and directing “The Letters of Noel Coward,” a virtual benefit reading starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha. Back in July, he also directed a virtual reading of Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year,” starring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, in a benefit for Guild Hall.
“That one was different than what we’re doing this time, in that we wanted people to know it was a reading,” said Balaban of the Baldwin and Moore production. “It began as a 98-minute play. You could see people turning pages. The magic part is it made you think of the actors so much. It’s very exciting.”
“For this, in the play I was involved in, we are sitting around a dining room table and you could suspend belief because it’s a lively conversation,” Balaban explained. “I think because we’re learning to hold scripts close to our eyelines, it’s pretty easy to think it’s a memorized piece.
For that reason, unlike a reading that is staged as such, audience members can expect Behar’s five short plays to feel a bit more like a true production. The lineup includes: “God & Bernadette” about a pre-teenage girl who ruffles the feathers of a nun (Bracco, Bauer, Brynne Amelia Ballan and Vaccaro); “Get Me Teresa Caputo” about a woman who wants to settle a score with the dead (McDermott, Vaccaro, Robert Klein and Irene Sofia Lucio); “Pearl Has a Visitor” in which a 13-year-old boy learns a few things from a famous comedian (Essman, Balaban, Steven Weber and Albert Peterson); “Greasing the Squeak” which tells the story of a new neighbor who poses a dilemma and a solution (Dratch, Linda Smith, Paul Hecht and Danny Hoch); and a solo piece titled “I Started Slow” starring Behar herself.
“We rehearsed it as Bob articulated,” explained Rubin when asked how the pieces were assembled. “We’re trying to get as close as we can to a live performance, but it will be recorded and edited for rhythm and pacing. We’re not doing a full production and not scoring it, but segueing with music to the next piece with a voice over of the setting and adding sound effects for those that require things like doorbells.”
Between the pandemic, the upcoming election and racial unrest, these are tumultuous times, and when asked if current events are in any way referenced in Behar’s collection of plays, Rubin notes that while the solo piece that Behar performs does have a political contour, the other offerings steer clear of such current events messaging.
“It’s blissful relief from modernity,” Balaban noted. “The piece I did with John and Joy takes place in ’55 with Lenny Bruce. You couldn’t get further away from today’s reality.
“Though my review is not going to count, she writes beautifully, is very real, unusual and really funny,” said Balaban. “We must’ve done our little play 30 times and they recorded it — it’s all based in humanity — all things that could be happening to your best friends.”
Though no one knows exactly when live theater will be able to resume, when asked if there was any thought to reprise this production in a live setting once the pandemic is over, Rubin responded, “I think it would be difficult to do on stage. There are about 15 actors, but once the pandemic is over, it’s an array of actors who are very busy.
“It’s almost commercially impossible to do it with these actors because you’re unlikely to get these people together at the same time. But I think one idea would be a cast of actors who could play a great array of different people.”
As has been the case for many industries in recent months, though theaters remain dark, as we make our way around the calendar and head back into the cold winter months, there have been a few silver linings for an industry decimated by this forced pause.
“You can work with people anywhere in the world,” Rubin said. “I’m sure the same is true with Bob as it is with me, I’ve done readings with people in five or six different time zones. The scheduling is the tough part, but it’s a point of fact —you can get people now. More people are available for a Zoom reading or performance.”
“It’s so much cheaper,” added Balaban. “You completely forget you’re not in the next room with people. This is the first time I’m realizing it. I didn’t really know that John was that far away.”
“And I got the fabulous Bob Balaban for bupkus,” laughed Rubin.
“A Totally Disrespectful Evening of Short Plays by Joy Behar” will premier Sunday, October 25, at 8 p.m. in a benefit for Guild Hall as well as the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center and JBJ Soul Kitchen in Wainscott. Tickets are $75 per household. Visit guildhall.org to reserve.