Joe Pintauro was running a bit late, and Kevin Jeffers had no time to spare. Or, rather, his actors didn’t.
They had places to be that night, other than staging Jeffers’ adaptation of Pintauro’s play, “Birds in Church” — not even giving the lyricist a moment to say hello to the playwright when he finally arrived at the New York theater, taking his seat in the front row among the intimate audience.
Twenty minutes later, the tense atmosphere had only heightened.
“At the end, you could have heard crickets. I thought, ‘Oh God, he must hate this thing,” Jeffers recalled. “I thought, I’ll get up, go over and shake his hand, and he can go, ‘Well, you know, keep working on it. Goodbye, it was nice meeting you.’”
The pep talk screeched to a halt when Jeffers approached the front row, now close enough to see Pintauro’s face — and the tears in his eyes.
“I always wanted somebody to put music to this,” the playwright had said. “Would you do it again?”
The composer glanced at his actors, who all agreed without hesitation — even those with prior obligations. They reset, and ran through it once more.
“It was wonderful,” Jeffers said. “I really thought, at the moment when we were done, that I should just run out the back door and that would be it, but it turned out to be quite the opposite of that.”
That night marked the beginning of their friendship, and a working relationship, one that erupted into a quarrel almost as quickly as it began. Pintauro wanted to expand the 20-minute show into a full-length musical, while Jeffers thought it was perfect as it was — and suggested adapting even more of the collection of 27 short plays from which it came, “Metropolitan Operas.”
They had reached a relatively good-natured impasse, one that stretched on for more than a decade. They would touch base with each other in between projects, occasionally revisiting “Birds in Church” before ultimately shelving it once more.
“I don’t play well in the sand with most people, but I love working and talking with Joe,” Jeffers said. “So I couldn’t help myself. I had picked out two more plays from the book that I loved, and sort of behind his back, I was playing with them, in the midst of the other things I was working on.”
By the time Jeffers finished the first draft, the guilt had caught up with him — and he confessed.
“I thought we agreed!” Pintauro had said.
“I know, but these are great,” Jeffers had replied. “You’re gonna love these. Let me finish them and show them to you, and if you hate ’em, you hate ’em, and if you love ’em, you can just tell me and we’ll all smile and it’ll be great.”
Pintauro reluctantly agreed, and they each invited a few dozen loved ones to their second New York reading — exponentially increasing the size of the audience, while coming into it as friends, not strangers.
And Pintauro’s reaction was nearly the same.
“There was a quiet moment, and he looked at me and smiled, and said, ‘You’re right,’” Jeffers said. “‘What do you mean, I’m right?’ And he said, ‘These all go perfectly together.’ And I said, ‘I told you! I’ve been telling you for years!’”
In March 2017, the official collaboration began — with Jeffers traveling out to Sag Harbor to visit Pintauro and his partner, Greg, whenever he could, oftentimes without warning.
“I’d say, ‘I’m coming out,’ and he’d say, ‘Fine.’ They had a room for me and I’m like, ‘Make me this for dinner,’” he recalled with a laugh. “They were kind of an extended family to me.”
They would talk about art and theater, life and religion. Pintauro took him to East End social gatherings, where they’d rub elbows with the likes of Alan Alda as Jeffers simultaneously pinched himself. Jeffers even repainted their house.
“The hours we spent over wine and beer and dinners and just sitting around, all these things came to the fore, and informed our work,” he said. “I could sit down and imagine how the world would be if someone’s gonna sing in that world. The plays are beautiful in themselves — they don’t really need the music — but by doing that, it’s just a matter of enhancing and taking moments and trying to either go more deeply into the emotional impact of it through music, or to extend it and have it rise above where speech would end.
“The line would die in space, but the music, you can extend that note, you can hold the music and actually expand it,” he continued. “It’s taking what’s already there and stretching it to its boundaries, hopefully, in the best of ways.”
Each of the three plays — which will stage together as “Salvation” on Friday at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill — are able to stand alone, but unfold like a “progressive dinner,” or a meal spread across several houses, a tradition in Jeffers’ small Wisconsin hometown.
“I don’t know if that’s something they do in the Hamptons or not, but it’s something I grew up with,” Jeffers said. “You’d go to somebody’s house and there’d be the appetizer, and then the next person’s house for the salad, and the next person’s house for dinner and dessert. To me, what I saw in these three plays, it’s that similar progression.”
“Rex” starts as the amuse-bouche, he said. “It’s so wonderfully playful and just reading it, I laughed out loud, and I don’t laugh out loud at much of anything,” he said. “It’s wonderfully bizarre and totally up my ally, and crazy and kooky and meaningful at the same time.”
Next is “The Rules of Love,” which Jeffers regards as heartfelt soul food, followed by the original play, “Birds in Church.”
“It’s this dessert that you’ve been making your whole life and saying, ‘This is how it needs to end,’” Jeffers said. “Joe’s original take was, ‘Do not end with “Birds in Church.” It’s too delicate.’ And I said, ‘It is not.’ I’ve stuck to my guns, and ultimately got to do the shows I wanted to do. Getting my way is nice, but the way in which I got it was even better, because it pushed me to think more deeply about why and what I wanted to do.”
The one-acts end with an extension of “The Parakeet Eulogy,” which Jeffers is insisting that Pintauro wait to experience until Friday night — with the rest of the audience, as per tradition.
“He has yet to hear it, but he’s seen what I’ve done with it textually. We haven’t been in the same rehearsal space for a while,” Jeffers said. “I suspect it will be brand new to him. He said, ‘Well just give me a recording,’ but I want him to hear it live for the first time. So I’m teasing him — but if he begs me, I’ll have to do it.
“But I’m like, ‘Just hear it for the first time,’” he said. “‘Just trust me, one more time.’”
The world premiere of “Salvation: Joe Pintauro’s Metropolitan Operas” will be held on Friday, May 25, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. The cast includes Tyler Belo, Matthew Boyd, Jessie Pressman, Hadley Rouse, Bart Shatto and Eric Sorrels. Admission is $25 and $10 for members and students. For more information, please call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.