Backstory: Dinner for Several
I was doing a show with the Medway Players back in early 2002. I had been on a long acting hiatus, and this was the second show I'd landed a role in. The piece was a new play written by a guy in Texas. It was a decent comedy, nothing to knock the world over. We had a lot of fun with it. But every time we were in rehearsal, I kept saying to myself, "I could write something like this." Rehearsal after rehearsal.
Well, I knew that sooner or later I'd have to put up or shut up. So one night when I got in I fired up the computer and launched into what would become Dinner for Several.
I had no idea what I was doing, of course. I just wrote the best I could, fully aware that I was definitely shooting from a sitcom-loaded gun. All the gags were set-set-spike. But the story kept on coming. By early summer I had a first act done. So I set up a staged reading.
On an abandoned tennis court.
At the time I was living alone in a 20x20 studio in an apartment building that had a tennis court out back. It made a perfect amphitheater--woods behind it, a small rise to one side that led to the parking lot behind an office building, and pretty much nothing to the other side. I grabbed six friends for a cast, hauled a bunch of stored furniture out of the basement, and invited twenty people to come watch. And there we were, out in the open in the middle of July, scripts in hand and for the first time I got to hear people laughing at my jokes, and getting into my story.
My friend Mike Legge, who runs the Medway Players, came over to me after we were done. What he said to me was one of the most wonderful things I'd ever heard. He said, "I want this play." Which, of course, meant that I had to finish it.
When I started in on Act Two, I got worried. Act One had come pretty smoothly. I'd rounded out an hour's worth of material and I knew, more or less, where the thing was going. I became obsessed with the idea that I'd end up cranking out twenty-minute second act. So I wrote. A lot. And eventually stalled.
But even with the stall on Dinner, I had momentum. That carried me into the start of "Bob's Date." The ideas were coming pretty fast and furious. Around this time I also started writing a piece that's still unfinished called "Jimmy's Garage." I made some headway on "Bob's," as it was the most promising idea in my head at the time, but I knew I had to get back to work on Dinner. After all, Legge wanted it! I was nearly guaranteed a production!
As winter came on, I decided to give myself a deadline. But it wasn't me saying, "I will finish this by..." No, I went a little tougher on myself. At the time I was in rehearsals for Blithe Spirit with the Walpole Footlighters. I'd been in one other show there and had a good in, so I asked if it would be at all possible to use the stage for a reading of my new play. They were very happy to go with it, and we set a date that February, shortly after Blithe closed. Which, of course, meant that I really had to finish the play.
I completed the script a week and half before the reading. Had a cast assembled and everything. We managed to draw about seventy people for an audience. I was surprised. I figured we'd get a dozen friends of the actors, tops. But on we went. The reading showed me two things about my script. One, it was very funny. Funnier, maybe, than I'd thought. I was getting all the right laughs in all the right places. But it also showed me that Two, it was insanely long. All the stuff I'd added draaaaagged the play beyond two and half hours, closing in on three.
Clearly, it was time to edit. So I hunkered down at the computer and while I wrote other plays, I took the chainsaw to Dinner. By early summer I delivered a completed script to Mr. Legge thanks to another of those "deadlines"--a production announcement. And in November 2004, Dinner for Several saw its first full staging. The Medway crowds--"crowd" being a relative term since they max out at 65--were wonderfully receptive. My favorite comment came from a friend in the audience who came to me at intermission and said, "Thank God the first act is over--now I can catch my breath!"
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I'd seen an announcement soliciting entries for the James Sunwall New Play Award. Hosted by the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre in Gainesville, FL, the Sunwall is a comedy-only competition. I threw the semi-edited script in the mail, and many months later got word that I'd won it. Dinner took top honors over something to the tune of 400 other entries. I was flown down to Gainesville to see a staged reading. The Acrosstown folks were as nice as could be. I felt like royalty.
After those two victories, however, came a long stretch of downtime. The script was rejected by Playscripts, and all my marketing efforts for the piece failed to garner any interest. I used the time to edit the piece again, trying to get rid of some clunky sections and removing traces of an orignal storyline. (Quickly: Liz wasn't originally coming to get Carter back--it made it more interesting in the edited version to have her come over with that intent and to have to work around it when she finds that Carter's on a date.) It wasn't until four years later that Dinner would have a second serving. And I owe it to an original cast member. My friend Christine Grudinskas, who originated the role of Mrs. McGonigle, kept tossing the script in front of the reading committee at the Footlighters. Three times it got rejected. On the fourth--I'd have to imagine due to a change in the committee's roster--it made it in. My wife, Stacey, interviewed to direct it and got the job. (No nepotism, friends--the Footlighters never contacted me about it!) In February of 2008 the show played to packed 275-seat houses for two wonderful weekends.
I've made the pork tenderloin recipe that Carter is whipping up at the start of the play. It's quite good. Several of the recipes mentioned (Cornish game hens stuffed with wild rice, for example) are also actual dinners I've made.
Endive and goat cheese is like the quick go-to appetizer for my wife and I. We make it at the drop of a hat and devour it. Serve it with a nice white wine.
Several of the Bad Breakup Stories in Act 2 are real. And some of them are mine.