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New York Review: `Thunder Knocking on the Door’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: `Endpapers’

What could be more reassuring and satisfying to a playwright

than to have his first full-length play turn out to be quite good?

That the playwright Thomas McCormack happens to be 70 years old may,

at first, sound rather astonishing, but not when you discover that

his play is drawn from a world he knows intimately. Isn’t that what

everyone tells us to write about? For nearly 40 years as the chairman

and CEO at St. Martin’s Press, McCormack has done for the publishing

industry what Jerry Sterner did for the world of corporate takeovers

in "Other People’s Money."

The place is a New York publishing house where a transfer of power

is set in motion following the demise of its leader and founder. The

play follows the intrigue, machinations, and confrontational meetings

of various editors who rally around their favorite candidates. The

house — the fictitious House of Maynard Books — is in serious

financial trouble, as a result of its attempt to remain a mid-size

independent company in an era of consolidation and dispersion.

Within Neil Patel’s convincing beehive-like setting that sprawls across

the Variety Arts Theater stage, a spread of cubicle-like offices get,

in turn, Rui Rita’s attention-grabbing lighting. In his wheel-chair

and plagued with increasing dementia, Joshua Maynard (William Cain),

the founder and publisher of Maynard Books is aware it is time to

turn over the reins to another. The issues at stake are maintaining

the prestige of this revered company and solve its financial woes.

The two most likely successors: Ted Giles (Tim Hopper), a shrewd,

unscrupulous but unsentimental hard-liner with a cunning aptitude

for success; Griff (Bruce McCarty), a philosophical idealist with

a valuable and commendable platform of know-how and ethics. Don’t

be too quick to figure out who wins the top-spot.

The decision rests with Maynard’s heir, his bright 27-year-old daughter

Sara (Maria Thayer) who has returned to the family business after

some unfocused years. Although she favors Griff, she is concerned

by his lack of aggression in the fight. Fearful of changes that Ken

might affect, she is being forced to consider the bottom-line and

few options for survival laid out by no longer compassionate banker

and long-time supporter of the company John Hope (Alex Draper). Amazingly,

and with barely a hint of sex, jokes, or comedy, the play builds to

a surprising (you won’t guess it) climax. This, as the various editors

find themselves on the offensive and defensive, as they attempt to

lobby for their long-time personal clients authors who can no

longer bring in the dough.

They are an interesting group, each one finely created for contrast

by the playwright and excellently acted. Beth Dixon is dynamic as

Kay, the shrewd and feisty editor with a far-right agenda and a strong

supporter of Ted. Shannon Burkett is splendid as Sheila Berne, Ken’s

easily intimidated assistant editor whose willingness to be humiliated

is tempered by an agenda of her own.

In Griff’s corner are Cora (Pippa Pearthree), a touching

plain-speaking down-to-earth editor with a taste for alcohol, and

Grover Shively (Neil Vipond), an unassuming and insecure editor, brother

of the deceased. In between the interoffice politics weave the day-to-day

dilemmas of keeping eccentric and difficult authors either content

or in tow, like Ram Spencer (Greg Salata) the blow-hard minor movie

star with a tell-all book, and Peter Long (Oliver Wadsworth), the

Truman Capote of Maynard Books. These last two characters are the

play’s only concession to caricature.

So what is it that holds our attention most in a world where there

is little thought given or time allotted to seduction or silliness?

While the play presumes to keep our focus on the outcome of the fight,

we are mostly taken by the fast and furious chatter of these passionate

people dedicated to books, publishing, and the flair for the right

word in the right situation. So this is really a play about great

gabbing and what it takes to keep a sinking business afloat. Director

Pamela Berlin does a terrific job keeping a steady flow of activity

from one office to the next and for keeping the actors — no up-stagers

here — performing as an ensemble.

"Endpapers" may not be the very best in dramatic literature,

but filled as it is with wit, literacy, and insight, it is an earnest

appreciation for the world of publishing and for the people whose

passion keeps it going. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

Endpapers, Variety Arts Theater, 110 Third Avenue at 14th

Street, New York. $45 to $64. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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Out below

The reviews below have no pictures to go with them, so we are holding

them for now — RKR, 7-31-02.

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New York Review: `Thunder Knocking on the Door’

What can you say about a musical that comes close to being a jaw-dropping

disaster, but that has a cast and a score that is so good that the

rest almost doesn’t matter? Considering that "Thunder Knocking

on the Door" has been touring around for years since it was first

commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival," the show that opened

finally in New York, a production of the Trinity Repertory Theater,

doesn’t seem to have been worked on nearly enough.

While I am inclined to dismiss Keith Glover’s libretto as a confused

and confusing mix of fantasy, myth, legend, and mysticism, it is the

virtually non-stop barrage of hot, cool, and bluesy tunes that Keb

Mo’ and Anderson Edwards composed to keep the show running in high

gear. With terrific entertainers Leslie Uggams, Chuck Cooper, Marva

Hicks, Peter Jay Fernandez, and Michael McElroy handling the on-stage

business, the justification for their electrifying presence becomes


Are you ready for this? It appears that "Good Sister" Gertha

Dupree’s (Uggams) late husband "once upon a time" bested a

blue-eyed shape shifter Marvell Thunder (Fernandez) in a local "cutting

contest," i.e. a duel of electric guitars in Bessemer, Alabama.

Unable to forgive or forget, Thunder returns as a mysterious stranger

years later in a new guise to the Dupree household as a boarder. Here

Gertha lives with her moping daughter Glory (Hicks) who has been blind

since a car accident. Gertha also has her hands full keeping her long-time

lover Dregster Dupree (Cooper) from getting too serious. That Dregster

is Gertha Dupree’s deceased husband’s twin brother may or may not

have something to do with Gertha’s reluctance to marry him.

The plot thickens when Gertha’s wanderlust son Jaguar Dupree (McElroy)

returns home with the news that he has forfeited one of the two magical

guitars that his father had left both him and his sister in a recent

contest with Thunder. Apparently Thunder has come to the Dupree household

to get the second guitar. This he can do only if he wins the instrument

in a face-off contest with Glory, whose eyesight he returns on spec.

Will Glory go blind again if she loses the contest? Will Thunder,

who is visibly turning to stone, be made human by Glory’s love? Will

Jaguar, who has compromised the family tradition with rock and roll,

pick up his father’s mantle and continue to foster the blues? And

will Gertha finally commit herself in marriage to Dregster?

In a program note Glover writes, "From the Delta of the Nile sprang

a life force that created the immortal Pyramids and spirituality that

is elemental in its power." With respect for Glover’s attempt

to find a link between the Nile delta and the Mississippi delta as

the genesis of the blues and his apparent fascination with supernatural

doings, the plot remains merely a curious and often incomprehensible

devise. However, when the company, either individually or as an ensemble,

invigorates one rafter-shaking number after another, among a few scattered

soulful elegies, the show is immensely entertaining.

The lovely and dynamic Uggams, who won a Tony award for "Hallelujah,

Baby!" and a Tony nomination for best leading actress for her

performance in August Wilson’s "King Headley," is a constant

source of joy and illumination and gives her big solo, "Willing

to Go," more reason for the world to love and honor the blues

than all the strained historic and metaphoric embroidery insinuated

around her. Tony winner (for "The Life") Cooper, who recently

concluded an engagement at Trenton’s Passage Theater as "Paul

Robeson," stops the show with his resounding singing voice. He

does it again with Fernandez playing dueling harmonicas. McElroy,

who appeared locally with Uggams in the Crossroads production of

"Play On," also teams up with Cooper in the hilarious "Motor

Scooter," a rousing shouting and empowering male-bonding number.

The spirited Hicks, who has been with the show during its lengthy

tour, is another singing dynamo. Her transformation into a fiery and

fearless up-stager in the gospel styled "Movin’ On" works

the audience into a frenzy. Fernandez takes on the challenge of a

role that has him appear first as slithering and slimy villain, but

then wins us over as in his metamorphoses into a slick and sensual

being. Much credit goes to Oskar Eustis, whose direction keeps everything

rooted more in the music rather than in the magic.

Technical credits, including Eugene Lee’s unit set that combines elements

of Egypt and Alabama (no kidding), Toni-Leslie James’ costumes circa

1966, and Natasha Katz’s flashy lighting are first rate. Adding to

this unusual musical experience is the terrific off-stage playing

of keyboardist George Caldwell, guitarists Billy Thompson and Billy

"Spaceman" Patterson, drummer Toby Williams, and Anderson

Edwards on bass. Forget the plot. By the end, you will be clapping

for the thunder created by the marvelous performers and by the music.

It was enough for me. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Thunder Knocking on the Door, Minetta Lane Theater, 18

Minetta Lane, New York, 212-307-4100.

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