Nearly every day for the past three weeks, Wade Dooley has walked down 42nd Street with purpose — the glowing signs and bustling sidewalks in his peripheral, not his focus.
Across the street from Madame Tussauds wax museum, in the heart of Times Square, the playwright has marched through the front doors of New 42nd Street Studios — the birthplace of over 700 Broadway and Off-Broadway shows — and headed straight to the rehearsal room of his newest play, “The Prompter,” where co-star Tovah Feldshuh and director Scott Schwartz were waiting for him.
It was precisely where he belonged. And last Thursday afternoon, it got the better of him.
“I was emotional when we staged the end of the play,” Dooley said. “It’s surreal. The biggest of the big shows rehearse here, so it’s special for me, every day, to just walk through the doors and come into rehearsal. I really feel like I’ve made it, in a way — that I will now be a produced playwright.”
On Tuesday evening, Bay Street Theater’s 2019 Mainstage Season will kick off with the world premiere of Dooley’s two-hander comedy about veteran actress Irene Young who, after a 40-year absence, is finally returning to the stage — except she can’t remember her lines.
The production hires a young actor to be her prompter, forging a relationship that transcends age and dives into the hilarious and heartfelt depths of theater. Based on true events, the prompter is intentionally named Wade, the playwright explained, though he did exercise some artistic liberties.
“I had taken notes when I was a prompter myself, just about stories and things I wanted to remember, and I started putting those things together,” he recalled. “And, piece by piece, it bore this play.”
The writing process began four years ago, at a time when Dooley was “bored, sad and unemployed,” the now 33-year-old said. The character actor was struggling to be cast — too young to play old and too old to play young, he said — when he decided to write a play not only for himself, but for another demographic often cast aside: the aging actress.
It is a story that is not being told right now, he said — at least not on Broadway.
“I think it’s sad that more roles aren’t being written for women of a certain age in new works. Roles are written for men, it seems,” Dooley said. “I grew up very close to my grandparents. A lot of my dearest friends in New York are older women and I’ve heard their struggles of trying to find that next good role, or find this next great part, and wanting to originate something. That was also a driving factor in writing this.”
It was the role that attracted four-time Tony-nominated Feldshuh to the production, she said, despite never having met Dooley and Irene having two decades on her, if not more.
But she trusted Schwartz — who directed her in “Golda’s Balcony,” which set a record as the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history — and jumped at the chance to further develop the play, which had its first-ever reading at last year’s New Works Festival at Bay Street.
“It is a thrill for me to give this break to this younger actor. It’s just great,” Feldshuh said. “He wrote a great play, he deserves a shot, and I’m helping give him his shot. It pleases me to no end.”
“And we do really enjoy each other,” Dooley added. “I think we’ve even found that we have to be told to pay attention and get back to doing the play because we’re laughing about something. That’s how you want this to be. It’s a privilege to get to do this work and to get to develop this work with somebody like Scott and somebody like her and with a theater like Bay Street. And for anybody who came to the reading, you just saw two people standing at music stands. This is much more than that.”
With a star-studded creative team — including Chicago-based set designer Kevin Depinet — “The Prompter” has taken on new life and a new look, complete with full costumes by Tracy Christensen, lighting by Mike Billings and sound by Jon Weston.
“Sound will be the third character in the play,” Dooley said. “There are voiceovers that you hear and there are sound effects and music and it’s gonna come from different parts of the theater, and I think the audience will feel very immersed in the space. They’re going to feel like they’re sitting in her dressing room, or they’re on stage with us, or they’re backstage. It’s that behind-the-scenes story that everybody loves.”
But the play is not just for theater lovers, the co-stars explained. It is a story about relationships and how they evolve. It is a story about aging and the way it is viewed in the both the performance community and society as a whole— a theme that has forced Feldshuh to ask the same of herself.
“What do we do as human beings when our faculties start to diminish?” she said. “I’m a woman of a certain age and I haven’t reached that point where I can’t do my work, but my God, some of my betters have. We know Angela Lansbury has used earpieces, I understand Marian Seldes has, Elaine Stritch wouldn’t have put up with it. But there are great, great actresses who had to resort to an earpiece in the last days of their career, and that dread, I can say, I can relate to that tremendously.
“Irene is faced with a necessity that she doesn’t want, because it marks the end of an era for her,” she continued. “That fear, once you get up there, you know you’re in the last third of your life, and what does that feel like? And what faces us? And the play will tap on that universal for not only Irene Young, but for everybody in the audience.”
Perhaps a similar, yet less dire, realization dawned on Dooley as he watched the final scene of “The Prompter” in New York, before rehearsal moved out to Sag Harbor, where they are currently in the throes of tech week — 100 miles from 42ndStreet.
And even though the curtain will fall at Bay Street come June 16, Feldshuh said she has a feeling this will not be the end — if she has anything to do with it.
“It’s a wonderful part for an older actress,” she said. “This play will live, and it will most likely play major cities, and it will give one actress, after another, another shot to prove to themselves that they can do this. They can do this in their 70s; they may even be able to do this in their 80s.”
His own roots in community theater, Dooley can imagine “The Prompter” staging in his hometown — Peoria, Illinois — where crowd favorite Lana Warner religiously portrays every older woman in every show, he said. And she is unstoppable.
“She is, essentially, a celebrity in the community theater world, where people are going to a show specifically to see her,” Dooley said. “And there was part of me that was thinking about her, too, and thinking this is a play that is giving a young guy and a woman of a certain age the opportunity to tell this story in Peoria, Illinois.
“I hope people will laugh and they will also cry,” he continued. “I think you’ll feel all of it, and that’s what good theater should do.”
“The Prompter” will make its world premiere on Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor, as the first production of its 2019 Mainstage season. Additional performances will be held on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select matinees at 2 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and select Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., through June 16.
Tickets range from $40 to $125, with a “Pay What You Can” performance on May 28. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baysteet.org.