The South Florida theater season is winding down, though there are some potential gems coming at the end of the month (specifically Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, the Island City Stage world premiere of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale and New Theatre’s prooduction of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Leveling Up at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center).
But fans of pithy drama and observant comedy don’t have to wait until then for a fresh theater fix. Previewing Thursday and opening Friday are two new productions in Miami-Dade County that could hardly be more different, except for this: Each play is being staged by a Carbonell Award-winning director working with stellar local casts.
Miami’s Zoetic Stage, closing out its Theater Up Close season in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, has the more heavyweight production in Harold Pinter’s searing 1978 play Betrayal. In Coral Gables, Actors’ Playhouse is going lighter but relatable with Karen Zacarías’ The Book Club Play.
Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer, who won his Carbonell for staging last season’s world premiere of McKeever’s Clark Gable Slept Here, wrote his master’s degree thesis on Pinter. Though he has never seen a production of Betrayal, he says that studying the British Nobel Prize winner’s body of work taught him how to direct.
“Pinter makes actors and directors really delve into everything that’s not being said,” Meltzer says. “There’s this other story that’s boiling in the silences, in the pauses, that’s really what the text is about.”
That verb, “boiling,” is apt. Though the play’s three characters — publisher Robert, his wife Emma, literary agent Jerry — may seem to be coolly sophisticated types, tumult lurks under the surface. Emma has betrayed Robert with Jerry, his best friend. Inventively, Pinter tells the story of the affair in reverse: The play begins after the relationship has ended, then moves back in time to its sizzling start.
Zoetic’s cast features Carbonell winners Nicholas Richberg as Jerry, Chaz Mena as Robert and Amy McKenna as Emma. Though the action in the original production began in 1977 and tracked backwards to 1968, Meltzer and his set designer (who happens to be McKeever) have chosen to keep the time frame of the plot more ambiguous.
“It’s telling the story of different forms of betrayal — the betrayal of friendship, of lovers, betrayal between husband and wife,” Meltzer says. “I wanted that to be the story. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of how women were perceived then. I wanted to keep it universal and timeless.”
“There are a lot of betrayals in the play,” Richberg affirms. “But I think the most profound betrayal is the betrayal of true friendship. It speaks to Jerry’s deep, deep loneliness.”
The tricky end-to-beginning structure presents an additional challenge for actors and audiences. Once, Meltzer had the actors run the scenes in reverse order, starting at the beginning of the affair and going to its end. Richberg says that helped the actors fill in some of the silences. Yet even though the audience knows from the start of the play how the Jerry-Emma affair has ended, Richberg finds the structure fascinating.
“You know there was an avalanche. Then you get to go back and see the first piece of snow,” he says.
McKenna chooses another icy image.
“Pinter isn’t for lazy actors. He strips out everything you don’t need to say ... You have to create what’s under the iceberg. You can make wildly different choices, but they all have to be supported,” she says.
For his part, Mena hears music in Pinter’s words and silences.
“There is an undeniable musicality to his work. You have to pay attention to the music to find out what the character is feeling and saying. It’s syncopated, for three, four beats, then a pause, then silence. You have to live within that,” Mena says. “We’re dealing with a masterpiece.”
At Actors’ Playhouse, on the other hand, Carbonell-winning artistic director David Arisco wasn’t aiming for a masterpiece. He was looking for a solid regional theater comedy that would speak to South Florida audiences and found it in The Book Club Play by Zacarías, a Washington playwright whose works have been produced all over the country.
“The biggest shock to me, after we announced it, was that so many people would talk about their book clubs to me. I didn’t think people read books anymore,” Arisco says. “As I was reading the script, I was visualizing specific actors. I just called them up and offered them the parts instead of having auditions. So I got this all-star cast.”
The production features Barbara Sloan as Ana, who leads a book club with her husband Rob (Stephen G. Anthony). Their longtime best pal Will — McKeever, the Betrayal set designer and a Zoetic Stage co-founder — is in the club, as are friends Lily (Lela Elam) and Jen (Niki Fridh). But when Alex (played by Mad Cat Theatre founder and artistic director Paul Tei), a comparative literature professor at the local community college, joins the group, literary hell breaks loose.
All the actors have won or been nominated for Carbonells, the region’s most coveted acting award.
Sloan, who has just finished playing Virginia Woolf in Thinking Cap Theatre’s Vita and Virginia, doesn’t get offered many comedies. She finds Zacarías’ writing “funny and witty and fast-paced and clever.” And she appreciates Arisco giving her the chance to be funny in a “controlling, uptight, upper-class” kind of way.
Tei just finished a run in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child at Palm Beach Dramaworks, and Arisco thought of him for The Book Club Play after he mused, “Who’s the one person who’s going to come into this group and mess it up?”
Tei’s Alex plays devil’s advocate, arguing with the book club that “if you don’t stay current, you cease to be relevant. You become a curator of antiquities.” To that end, he suggests that reading the Twilight trilogy or The Da Vinci Code has as much value as reading the classics. You can almost see Ana’s blood pressure rising.
Neither Elam nor McKeever has ever worked at Actors’ Playhouse as a performer. Neither has been in a book club. But the South Florida theater community being a relatively small and friendly world, most of the actors have worked together in various combinations over the years. Elam, for instance, starred alongside playwright McKeever in Clark Gable Slept Here.
“There’s a great comfort, an ease, a chemistry in the cast,” McKeever says. “We’re all each other’s best audience.”
“When I leave here,” Elam says, “I’m in pain from laughing so much.”
If you go
What: ‘Betrayal’ by Harold Pinter.
Where: Zoetic Stage production at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 3 p.m. May 16), through May 31.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
What: ‘The Book Club Play’ by Karen Zacarías.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 2 p.m. May 20), through June 7.
Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 other performances (10 percent discount for seniors, $15 student rush tickets, excludes Saturday-Sunday; group discounts for 10 or more).