Corrections or additions?
This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the April 19, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mastrosimone on Home Turf
Playwright William Mastrosimone’s father, who was born in 1915 to
immigrant parents, saw his "American Dream" demolished when everything
he had worked for and built was taken from him in 1969 by right of
"eminent domain." This event and the story of the family dealing with
this blow inspired Mastrosimone to write the play "A Stone Carver,"
whose production marks the conclusion of the Passage Theater’s 20th
anniversary season. On Monday, April 24, Mastrosimone and director
Robert Kalkin hold a discussion about the play at Princeton Public
Mastrosimone’s father was a self-made man who built "with his own
hands" a building complex on a large parcel of land on the outskirts
of Trenton. There was an apartment building and an office building.
Later he would add an ice-cream parlor and a bowling alley. "We lived
above the office building," says Mastrosimone in a phone interview
from his home in Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and
children. "That was our family life; we lived in the middle of his
little empire." The family included parents and five children: Bill,
three older brothers, and a younger sister. Mastrosimone’s own
children include two older stepsons – one away at college, the other
attending college locally. Then there are his two daughters and an
orphan girl from Afghanistan.
It was mystifying to the senior Mastrosimone when, one day in 1969, a
yellow car from the state drove up to tell him that his property was
condemned. Supposedly, the state had decided to put Route I-95 through
his land. Not wanting to sell was not an option. Back then, not too
many people had heard of "eminent domain." The final irony is that the
highway did not come this way. The buildings became a warehouse for
trucks, was finally demolished, and now Mastrosimone is pretty sure
there is a McDonalds there.
He remembers sitting around the kitchen table unable to fathom the
meaning of this. "What I saw was very traumatic for me and more so for
my father. What was traumatic about it was that I saw my father
emasculated." Thinking of this later, Mastrosimone came to the
conclusion that "the American Dream" is really phony. "The American
Dream is that if you work hard, you can make a great life for
yourself. What you have is yours. But it’s not true. With eminent
domain they can take anything."
The experience destroyed Mastrosimone’s father, who though he was able
to continue with new business, never recovered emotionally.
Mastrosimone remembers that his father was still just as angry and
talked about it just as passionately right before he died as he did
when it happened. "It is a wound that never healed," says
Mastrosimone. Describing his father as very patriotic, Mastrosimone
feels that this very love of country made it difficult for his father
to talk about what had happened. "He knew that if we would talk about
this too much it would lead us to the conclusion that there’s really
something wrong in America. There seemed to be the vestiges of
kingship that his family thought were left behind."
`A Stone Carver" began more than 30 years ago when Mastrosimone was a
student. After dropping out of Tulane University in 1969 after one
year of pre-med studies ("It was too far and I didn’t have the
money.") he decided to educate himself, preparing to become a writer.
He wrote a novel and a play, which he didn’t finish. In 1973, he went
to Rider College before it became a university, where he met people
who encouraged his writing. He began thinking about a play dealing
with, he says, the "emotional event and trauma of what had happened to
my family." The following year, he was accepted into the first class
of the Mason Gross School of the Arts. The first week there, his
graduate playwriting teacher, who would become his mentor, Betty
Comtois, assigned a playwriting project due by the end of the year. "I
was so inspired that I sat down and wrote the play in two weeks," says
Over the years "A Stone Carver" has been produced, but after a short
Off-Broadway run (using the title "The Understanding") – which was a
big disappointment to the playwright – he and his agent have been very
stingy with the rights to this play. He has withheld any further New
York City productions since 1980. "I didn’t want to have a bad
production of this." It is such a special play for him, so close to
his heart. It played at Seattle Rep in 1987 and was a produced in
Chicago a few years ago. On his desk in his office, Mastrosimone has a
copy of the script in Russian thanks to a production in Moscow before
the fall of the USSR. "It ran there for a long time," the playwright
says. Surprised by only just now thinking of the relevance of this, he
says, "The power of the state that could do anything must have made
this play have special meaning to them."
Like any good writer, Mastrosimone has used his family’s personal
drama as a starting point, but the resulting play is his invention.
In fact, he describes the character of the father in the play – who
will be portrayed by actor Dan Lauria, familiar to George Street
Playhouse audiences in his recent appearances in "Inspecting Carol"
and "The Pillowman" – as a composite of his father and his uncle. The
stone carver, Agostino Malatesta, is the last holdout before the
developer’s bulldozer. He is standing guard over the house he built of
limestone and is surrounded by stone angels that he has carved in the
image of his dead wife. His own son and his fiancee have come to
"reason" with him that he must step aside for "progress." This family
conflict between the two generations proves the central conflict of
the play. "This is a family story," says Mastrosimone. Earlier drafts
of this play were much more political, focusing on the power of the
state versus the rights of the individual. He says: "The politics have
been pushed way in the background but are still there."
He finds it telling that when lawyers, government officials, or public
relations people looked for a name for confiscating private property
for what they term "the public good," they had to go back to the
middle ages for a term – eminent domain. "That was when kings had the
right to take anything they wanted," says Mastrosimone.
Obviously heartfelt, he adds, "Nowadays it’s worse. Before it was
about `We want to build a hospital; we want to do something for the
public good.’ Now they still call it the public good, but now they
want to build condos. They want to increase the tax base. They’re in
cahoots with developers. Seize a prime piece of land from people who
are just living there."
A website sponsored by an advocacy group tracks cases of eminent
domain nationwide. Among New Jersey listings is the home of a World
War II veteran who is dying of lung cancer. This land is "needed" for
a luxury condo. The link to explore this nationwide problem is
Mastrosimone’s family is very important to him and so is his home in
Pennsylvania. "A home is a sacred place. Now in the United States
nothing is sacred unless it’s a church, synagogue, or mosque. But a
home is a sacred place to me because people are born there, die there,
and everything in between. The walls themselves trigger memories. Your
memories are treasures. I think that homes should be sacred."
A man of words, but also a man of great heart, he follows up with
action and generosity. These are qualities he has passed on to his
family. "My daughters know that there are a lot of people in the world
who are not as fortunate as us. My parents taught me you’ve got to
give something back. I saw my parents do that all the time. They did
it on a local level. I have an opportunity to do it in the orphanages
in Afghanistan. On a bigger scale." It was his daughters’ idea to
bring an Afghan girl into our family.
In the fall of 2003, his play, "The Afghan Women," premiered at
Passage Theater. Since then all profits from this play have helped to
support two orphanages and two clinics in Afghanistan. The play is
optioned for a Broadway production next season. If it is successful,
Mastrosimone plans to use those profits to expand the work in
Afghanistan, building a new facility. He says that too many men there
are out of work, their only asset a gun-for-hire to various warlords.
"These are guys who want to get married, live traditional lives, but
there’s nothing else for them." The idea for the new project is "Give
us your gun and we’ll give you a profession." Mastrosimone explains
that teaching working skills is already a part of the education in the
orphanages, but with the new building, they plan to expand to young
people in their 20s and 30s.
Another play that Mastrosimone has written is "Bang, Bang, You’re
Dead." Dealing with violence in American schools, the rights to this
play are free on the Internet so that high schools have access to it.
The television version of this play won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
How can Mastrosimone afford to be so generous? He makes a lot of money
writing for television and movies. Since his first major theatrical
success with "Extremities" in 1982 — a play that would later be made
into a movie starring Farrah Fawcett, he has been offered a number of
writing assignments for television movies. He won a Golden Globe Award
for the mini-series "Sinatra" (1992). Along with Steven Spielberg,
Dreamworks, and TNT, he was head writer, co-producer, and creator of
the televsion series "Into The West," which won the Critics Choice
Award for Best Picture Made for Television in 2005, and the Wrangler
Award from the National Cowboy & Western Museum for "Outstanding
Television Feature of 2005." He describes this experience as basically
doing six movies at the same time. "It was very hard." And he took a
year off when that project was completed to recoup his energies.
`I have some dreams that I’ve had before, aspirations that I’ve
neglected. One of them is a story about my childhood." His current
list of projects is mind-boggling. He’s almost through with a novel
called "The Blackberry Wars." And he’s also working on a musical based
on a play he wrote while at Mason Gross. It was called "Ham" – Hamlet
done as a western. Recently he found a composer who is interested in
working on this, writing a country western score, of course. "I
actually have a number of plays lined up, some researched, half
written, or more than that in some."
For now, he would like to invite people who’ve lost their homes to
eminent domain to come to see "A Stone Carver." "We’ll see what
happens. Maybe it will call some attention to the practice. This may
develop into something."
— LucyAnn Dunlap
"A Stone Carver," Monday, April 24, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public
Library, Community Room, first floor, 65 Witherspoon Street,
Award-winning playwright and Trenton native William Mastrosimone and
acclaimed director Robert Kalfin in a discussion of their
collaboration on "A Stone Carver." Set in Trenton, the play examines
the generational conflicts of a proud Sicilian-American father (played
by Dan Lauria), and his son, as they are played out in an eminent
domain battle over the home the father built. 609-924-8822.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.