By Michelle Trauring
Standing in the middle of his dining room last week, Joe Pintauro remembered the wooden hull with photographic clarity, like it was a ghost. Like it was yesterday.
“It would go up to the ceiling and take up three quarters of the room,” he mused thoughtfully over the telephone. “You see the interior, the guts, where the motor was, and you see the way it’s tilted, like a gigantic ‘u.’”
The old hull had washed up onto the beach during a hurricane some 25 years ago, marooned in the sand, its body reaching up toward the sky. It would become the poetic symbol of the local fishermen who go out to sea and hopefully always return, but sometimes never do. The same men who fought for their rights on the East End for decades, their cries falling on deaf ears. The same men whom Mr. Pintauro memorialized in his eponymous stage adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives.”
All those years ago, Bay Street Theater premiered Mr. Pintauro’s play for its very own opening night. Bay men rubbed elbows with the East End elite, sitting side by side in a sold out theater.
They left the theater together that night, some with tears in their eyes—tears of both validation and newfound empathy. For just under two hours, they were of one heart and of one mind, getting a real glimpse inside that hull, that world and their longtime plight, before returning to their respective worlds.
On Friday, “Men’s Lives” will breath new life during a reading at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, as part of the “Radical Seafaring” exhibition. The hull, which sat outside Bay Street Theater for a decade, won’t make its triumphant return.
But the story that it stood for will.
A Leap Of Faith
“I’ll tell you the truth. I did not think a play could be made of the original book,” Mr. Pintauro said of Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives”—what he calls a “long, beautiful, elegiac expression” about the Bonackers, whose way of life and tight-knit fishing community was endangered by the transformation of the Hamptons into a playground for the rich.
“I wouldn’t consider it fiction, except for the fact that Peter’s style of writing was profound and beautiful,” Mr. Pintauro continued. “But most of it was a broadcast, piece-by-piece statement by all the members of this family and of this tradition out there. But it didn’t have structure.”
That didn’t stop him from trying, though he kept it close to the vest and buried it deep in his archives when he said he realized he made a terrible mistake. “I felt that it failed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Stephen Hamilton happened to be reading Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives” in his rare moments of downtime. He and his wife, Emma Walton Hamilton, were two of the founders opening a brand new theater on Long Wharf and spent most of their time scouting for the perfect inaugural play.
“Steve kept saying, ‘Man, if only we could get someone to do an adaptation as a play. That would be the perfect thing to do,’” recalled Ms. Walton Hamilton, who is directing the Parrish reading with her husband. “We both said to each other, the ideal person would be Joe Pintauro. Steve called him up and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this book?’ And Joe said, ‘Have I read it? I have an adaptation of it! And it’s terrible and I haven’t looked at it since I finished it.’
“Bells went off in our heads and we said, ‘Can we see it?’” Ms. Walton Hamilton continued. “He reluctantly showed it to us. The bones of something was there, but it needed work.”
Ms. Walton Hamilton took on the role of dramaturg and Mr. Hamilton became Mr. Pintauro’s inspiration, the playwright said, and together they churned out a dozen drafts until it was right. They would center the story on the wake of the lost fishermen, which proved to be a challenge for legendary set designer Tony Walton. He would need both a house in the dunes, and a ship at sea.
So Mr. Pintauro took him to the beach.
“Tony asked me things about how I would see it, and I said, ‘I see it all taking place under the sky,’ and told him about the hull,” he said. “I drove Tony to this place, he took about 200 photographs of it and, two days later, I was sitting across from the theater and I see a flat-bed truck coming by with this thing on it. And it became the centerpiece of the entire thing.”
It was that moment the playwright knew, he said. This mattered.
Art Impersonating Life
Suffice it to say, the cast did not know when they signed on how charged “Men’s Lives” would be. And to their credit, they committed once they did.
They went out to sea with the baymen, sat with them and learned their accents, their dialects and even some of their skills. They talked about their struggles, their fears and their love for the ocean. The late 1980s and early 1990s was an epic era for them, in terms of sports fishing lobbies and petitions in Albany, as well as fighting against pollution issues and to maintain their livelihoods.
“They were staging protests on the beach and we went down one day while we were in rehearsal,” Ms. Walton Hamilton recalled. “We had befriended the community and they were our consultants. So we go down to Indian Wells to watch them protesting, Billy Joel was there with them and actually got arrested. A week or so later, we were in rehearsal and when we came out, we saw a couple of us had our tires slashed outside the theater. It was a really provocative time.
“We have such extremes in our community—extreme wealth and extreme povery—and different clashing worlds,” she continued. “And I think people very rightly feel they have a claim to a way of life here that they’ve always had for 11, 12, 13 generations, and other people who feel just as rightly that they come out here and made an investment and that entitles them to enjoy it. I don’t think it’s unique to the Hamptons, but it makes for an interesting place to stage ‘Men’s Lives.’”
The show would go on, they said without any hesitation, and opened to a packed house of half baymen and their families, and half members of the Hamptons summer community. “I don’t know what people were expecting,” Ms. Walton Hamilton said. “None of us knew what to expect.”
As the final notes of Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa” closed the production—a song he wrote specifically for the play—“it was this sort of eruption in the audience and people literally leapt to their feet,” Ms. Walton Hamilton said. “And we were so overcome, we were in tears. It was the most incredible affirmation of all the hard work that brought us to that moment and this incredible group of families that have been here since day one and have been overlooked and neglected.
“It really was an amazing moment. I will never forget it as long as I live.”
Timeless On Stage And At Sea
The production ran sold out during its seasonal run at Bay Street for two consecutive years, Mr. Pintauro said. “My doctor said, ‘Can you get me a ticket?’ and I actually couldn’t,” he laughed.
For the 10-year anniversary, Ms. Walton Hamilton directed a reading much like the one that will be held at the Parrish, with a backdrop of moody photographs by Doug Kuntz of the baymen. The play remained the same, Mr. Pintauro said, including the monologue that shaped all of “Men’s Lives.”
“I bring back one of the fishermen who died, who says he would like to take a plane way up over the ocean from the East Hampton airport and then throw himself out and let all the money in his pockets fall to the water like a bunch of sand eels and attract the fish,” he said. “And when he’d land, his body would go splat into a slick of chum and he would feed the fish who fed his family all his life. And I just found that that was the key.”
While this is a tale about income inequality and modern advances wiping out entire professions, it universality rests more on humanity and its everlasting need for appreciation, respect and a connection to its history.
“In a lot of ways, it resembles the kind of politics we’re dealing with at the moment,” Mr. Pintauro said. “It’s people who have their own interests who don’t care about the ordinary working person or where he came from. Here they were, just a handful of the truest Americans who were still speaking in Kentish accents, who learned to fish from the Montaukett Indians, learned how to haul seine, learned how to go out in dories and build them.
“There’s so much tradition and so much originality. One could do everything in the world to preserve a great painting or a great antique. However, these men were, in themselves, monuments to the beginnings of America coming right out of the earth,” he continued. “Then comes this growing, complicated world of politics and cold unthinking, a kind of lawmaking with great sweeps that don’t care about how it affects individuals. So much courage and so much authenticity, and here it was being demolished. And being demolished by forces that are greater than any of us. And it hasn’t stopped.”
A reading of “Men’s Lives” will be held on Friday, June 17, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Admission is $10, or free for members, children and students. For more information, call (631) 283-2118, or visit parrishart.org.