Performing Arts

New plays lead the way in a jam-packed South Florida theater week

Those who fret over the state of theater can breathe easy, at least in South Florida, at least this week. Nine shows are opening throughout the region, with the majority of the openings crammed into the weekend.

For theater fans who gravitate to new work, the news is even better. Two of the shows are world premieres, and a third is a substantially revised script, all by South Florida playwrights.

Their subjects couldn’t be more different.

New Theatre’s Not Ready for Primetime by Erik J. Rodriguez and Charles A. Sothers is about the early days of Saturday Night Live. Juan C. Sanchez’s Paradise Motel at Miami Theater Center unfolds over seven decades with different characters occupying the same motel room in Little Havana. Island City Stage’s Have I Got a Girl for You by Josh Mesnik is about a recently sober gay musical theater actor who winds up running a major female escort agency.

The most scrutinized show will certainly be the one from New Theatre, now based at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. The script focuses on producer Lorne Michaels’ creation of Saturday Night Live, which launched in 1975, and on its original cast: Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Garret Morris and, with Chase’s departure, Bill Murray.

The meticulously researched play touches on comedy, rivalries, sex, drugs and more, but Sothers says he and Rodriguez didn’t intend to write a docudrama. “We tried to figure out the human parts of these icons,” he says.

All of those early performers will be portrayed, but it’s the actor playing Michaels — Miami Marlins president David Samson — who brings extra buzz to Not Ready for Primetime. Samson’s cast mates are O’Neil Delapenha, Luis Daniel Ettorre, Melissa Ann Hubicsak, Jennifer Lehr, Danny Leonard, Ivan Lopez, Zach Myers and Susie Taylor.

Everyone involved in the production insists that Samson, who was the first castaway kicked off the current edition of CBS’ Survivor, didn’t get the New Theatre gig as a publicity ploy.

“David is an actor that no drama teacher ever got to,” says co-author Rodriguez, a senior at Florida International University. “He was the first person [to have his part memorized].”

“I directed David for our ‘Miami Stories’ benefit. He’s a natural, so amazing,” says Ricky J. Martinez, New Theatre’s artistic director. “He’s so professional … just another one of the actors. I don’t know how he does it. He drives to Jupiter for spring training, then comes all the way south to Cutler Bay for rehearsal. And at every rehearsal, he’s prepared.”

Samson, who started watching Saturday Night Live in 1980 when he was 12, exudes confidence and humility when talking about making his stage debut.

“The time commitment, blocking, learning lines, the technical aspects of performance — that didn’t occur to me. But after Ricky told me I’d won the role, I told him that if I commit, I’ll work as hard as I can not to embarrass him. If I’m in, I’m in all the way,” Samson says. “My respect for stage talent has increased a hundredfold.”

Accustomed to media attention in his day job, Samson isn’t worried about his lack of acting experience.

“I act every day. The part I play every day is president of the Marlins. At night, I’m the father of my kids,” he says.

Samson says he’s learned a lot from Martinez and that “if I’m good, it’s because of Ricky. If I’m bad, it’s because of me.”

Sanchez’s Paradise Motel is the first venture of a new group of Miami artists dubbed the Mangrove Creative Collective. Staged with the help of a $5,000 grant from Miami Theater Center’s Knight Arts Challenge funds and a $7,000 grant from Miami-Dade County, the play exemplifies Mangrove’s mission.

“We’re looking to create film and theater inspired by Miami. We want to take these stories, find the universality in them and share them with the world,” says Sanchez.

Staged by Margaret M. Ledford, Paradise Motel features Matt Stabile, Niki Fridh, Jeremiah Musgrove, Gladys R. Benton, Kitt Marsh, Vanya Allen, Andy Quiroga and Rayner Gabriel Garranchan in a historically evocative play that involves sex, drugs, crime and a continually evolving Little Havana.

“I’ve lived in Little Havana all my life, and I wanted to write about how much I’d seen it change, without it being a history lesson,” Sanchez says. “So I put the characters in a motel, the most transient of all places, where all the people and decades could intersect.”

Playwright Mesnik, who recently moved back to South Florida from New York, debuted Have I Got a Girl for You at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. Collaborating with director Michael Leeds, Mesnick has rewritten some of the script and added more material so that “about 30 percent of it is new,” he says.

Featuring Mike Westrich in the role Mesnik originated, Sharyn Peoples as the escort agency’s madam, and Christina Groom and Larry Buzzeo in multiple roles, the play isn’t just something Mesnik dreamed up: He lived it.

“Nine years ago I came to South Florida to go to rehab,” he says. “After I finished, I took a job answering phones at the largest female escort agency on the east coast. Eventually I took it over, then I opened my own agency. I did that during my first year of sobriety.”

Now that’s some eclectic theater.