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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 7, 2000. All rights reserved.
‘Burg Boy’s `Blinding’
As June Ballinger of Passage Theater stood on Trenton
Commons during lunch hour last week handing out flyers for the company’s
world premiere of "Blinding Light" by William Mastrosimone,
she got the impression there was hardly a state worker there who did
not know `Trenton’s Native Son.’
"It seemed that everybody I spoke to had grown up with him, gone
to school with him, or claimed to be related to him," reports
Ballinger, the theater’s producing artistic director, with a hearty
laugh. She heard him dubbed "the ‘Burg boy who made good"
as well as "the bad boy who made good."
And why not? As Trenton moves to embrace the man who is, at present,
Trenton’s best-known playwright, they are also celebrating a Trenton
native who is making a good living at work he loves. Like Mastrosimone,
Passage Theater is also Trenton-born. Passage, performing in the intimacy
of the converted church that is Mill Hill Playhouse, will celebrate
its 15th anniversary this year. It opened its doors in 1985 with Mastrosimone’s
play, "The Undoing," directed by Passage co-founder Veronica
"Bill’s a man with a big heart and a big conscience," says
Ballinger, a long-time admirer of Mastrosimone who stepped in to revive
Passage four years ago, following the departure of artistic directors
Elizabeth Murphy and Stephen Stout. "`Blinding Light’ has been
cooking for 10 years; Bill and I have been talking about it for two;
and last year he said he would have it ready for the main stage."
The set of eight short plays — or "playlets" as Mastrosimone
calls them — is being brought to production without the customary
workshop or staged reading. "It’s an amazing gamble on our part,
but it will be exciting for the audience to see this brand-new work,"
she says. "And I know this production will provide crucial groundwork
for the future."
Mastrosimone, who had looked forward to being part of the rehearsal
process of this theater piece that is, by his own admission, a new
departure, found himself stranded on the West Coast by a variety of
professional commitments. Director Julie Boyd and the cast of four
took Mastrosimone’s roughly-worked script into a three-week rehearsal
period that was augmented by multiple phone conferences and back-and-forth
faxes. Last week, the playwright was finally released for long enough
to attend several New York rehearsals.
Speaking by phone from a brother’s home in Ewing, Mastrosimone explains
that "`Blinding Light’ is all about interesting people, many of
whom are real people who I have known or met." He says that spending
the evening with these characters is somewhat like walking through
the train station. In fact, on of its eight scenes is titled "Penn
"These are about the storm and stress in relationships, people
at a crossroads, people resisting change," he says. "It’s
not a sit-down dinner — more like a smorgasbord."
The evening takes its title from one of the scenes, "Blinding
Light." With only two folding chairs as its setting, "Blinding
Light" opens with a routine airplane journey during which two
strangers are thrown together by fear; yet the dialogue takes this
man and this woman through a lifetime together, from the turbulence
of the airline flight through the turbulence of marriage. A crisis
occurs when each accuses the other of infidelity, and the whole notion
is held up to scrutiny.
"With `Blinding Light,’ I wanted to explore the idea of emotional
infidelity. We all know what physical infidelity is. Inspired by the
Clinton era, my wife — we’ve been married 5-1/2 years — said
she thought infidelity is doing anything in regard to the opposite
sex that you know would really upset your spouse."
"I know that puts a lot of pressure on finding everything within
the marriage. But if you are cheating your spouse out of an emotional
side of yourself, taking time to develop an emotional side of yourself
that the spouse doesn’t see, then I think you’re in danger."
"Is this an old-fashioned view of marriage?" Mastrosimone
asks rhetorically. He answers: "Yes. The idea of a commitment
takes them to the end of their lives. This is what happens when you
clear the deck like this," he continues. "It really honors
your partner. You derive your pleasure from making the marriage good."
One of "Blinding Light’s" monologues, "’Ectomy" (a
title taken from the Greek suffix that means to cut out), is based
on another "interesting character," one of the playwright’s
prep school classmates.
"This is about someone who was born a man, but knew from an early
age that he wasn’t a man," says Mastrosimone. "He loved women
and wanted to be with women as a woman. This made him realize he was
a lesbian." The man undergoes sex-change surgery, but then feels
more lost than ever. "He felt he was still a man," says the
The cast features Scott Denny, Jenny Eakes, Maggie Lacey, and Richard
Topol. Directing "Blinding Light" is Julie Boyd, a graduate
of Yale drama school.
Boyd and Ballinger met in the mid-1980s as young actors at the Actor’s
Theater of Louisville. Over the years, Boyd gravitated toward directing
while Ballinger gravitated toward producing. Boyd’s directing credits
include the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the Guthrie Lab
in Minneapolis, and the American Conservatory Theater School in San
Francisco. Boyd continues to act, however, and this summer she will
be seen on Broadway in the Roundabout Theater’s revival of "The
Man Who Came to Dinner."
Born in New Jersey in 1947, and raised in the Chambersburg
section of Trenton and Lawrenceville, Mastrosimone’s father
was in construction and business; his mother was a full-time mom.
He graduated from the Pennington School and attended Tulane University,
and Rider College, where he earned his BA; he earned an MFA at Rutgers
in 1977 and received an honorary doctorate from Rider in 1989.
Mastrosimone made his debut with "The Woolgather" in 1991,
and saw early success with his second play "Extremities,"
in which a near-rape victim turns the tables on her attacker. The
play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award in 1982 and was later
made into a feature film. In 1986 Mastrosimone moved to Seattle from
Trenton to work with the Seattle Repertory Theater, then to Enumclaw,
Washington, in the foothills of Mount Rainier outside Seattle. Although
the family made plans to move back to central New Jersey last year,
real estate issues prevented that from happening. Mastrosimone still
lives in Enumclaw, with his wife, stepsons ages 13 and 16, and daughters,
ages 3 and 4.
Among the projects currently keeping him busy is his screenplay for
"Benedict Arnold," originally written in 1976, a project that
grew out of his MFA thesis play at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School. Recently
sold to the A&E television network, it is now in pre-production, with
filming set to begin this fall in Canada. The historical drama about
the man whose name is synonymous with treachery will air under the
title "Dark Eagle."
"It’s actually a story that has waited 200 years for a writer
to show up," he says. "You have to invent nothing, it’s all
there. Heroes, villains, a beautiful woman. George Washington was
one of Benedict Arnold’s best friends and greatest supporters."
Heaped on top of all this maximum activity, Mastrosimone is also working
on a television movie for Showtime that stems from his life-changing
authorship of a play about violence, written for teens, "Bang
Bang You’re Dead." The 40-minute play for 11 actors was posted
on the Internet in April, 1999 (www.bangbangyouredead.com),
and offered free to be downloaded at will. The site has logged close
to 45,000 visitors, and the play has had hundreds of productions.
These include one at the author’s son’s middle school in Enumclaw,
which is not far from the site of the school shooting in Springfield,
Oregon, that was the play’s catalyst. This week alone will see performances
at La Jolla High School in California (this writer’s alma mater) and
at West Windsor-Plainsboro Middle School here in Mercer County.
"The film will not be the play itself, but a film about kids putting
on their version of the play. I didn’t want a movie version of the
play to exist, because people would slavishly copy it and that’s not
what I want," he says. The show is due to air this fall.
"I was so naive. I thought of it like putting a little sailboat
in the water and walking away," says Mastrosimone, self-mockingly.
And nothing could be further from the truth for the author who now
spends the first two or three hours of each day reading and replying
to mail from teens. "I’ve been getting 100 E-mails a day for over
the past year," he says "Nine different kids in nine different
states have contacted me through the Internet and told me they had
hit lists, that they were planning to do violence, and that the play
had changed their minds." Further, some young people have appealed
directly to the playwright for help, involving him in direct intervention,
such as phone calls to schools and counselors, to get the troubled
teen appropriate assistance.
Is play writing an activist medium, a vehicle for righting wrongs?
"I think I’m more of a meat-and-potatoes playwright," says
Mastrosimone. "I really start with people. I’m interested in interesting
characters. That’s how all plays start," he says.
You could call "Blinding Light" and evening’s album of the
interesting characters who have attracted and captured Mastrosimone’s
attention. And he’s sufficiently impressed by the production being
readied by Passage Theater that he is hoping to move the play to New
By the time Mastrosimone finally succeeded in attending three days’
rehearsals of this new work, he could already see that his contribution
was complete, for the time being, and that it was time for the playwright
to be phased out. "It’s their play now," he says, "the
director’s and the actors’. And in another week, it will be the actors’
— Nicole Plett
Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Previews
begin Wednesday, June 7; show that opens Friday, June 9, and runs
through Sunday, June 25. $15 to $30.
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