Sometimes plays came to us from afar and sometimes close to home. Dawn Bodner Sutton had come on board as the theatre’s general manager, and mostly to try to keep her budding writer husband, Phoef Sutton, employed somehow, we hired him as the stage manager and prop master for ARE YOU NOW. Phoef had a play, of course, and we thought it was good, so we produced it in 1984, splitting the week with SLAB BOYS. Ron Liebman, a frenemy of Allan’s (they often competed for the same parts), was supposed to direct it, but at some point, bailed, perhaps sensing something that we didn’t.
In the LA Times, Dan Sullivan pronounced it the “stupidest new play of the year.” Ouch.
I wrote a long letter to Dan after the play closed, not a for-publication letter, “just a letter-letter” as I put it, because I was “absolutely convinced that, although not entirely successful, THIN WALLS represented a strain of theatre so distinctly new, it is too new for most people to recognize its new-ness.” I went on the say that I believed, “THIN WALLS has suffered the fate of many artistic projects that were ahead of their time. Fortunately, one can take a Jackson Pollack painting out of storage, put a Stravinsky recording onto the record player, or run a film like ‘Choose Me’ through a projector twenty years after the fact. Unfortunately, plays live almost exclusively in the moment and cannot be exhumed at a later date for easy re-viewing.”
This is still one of the great challenges of writing for the theatre: to be of one’s time but not too far ahead of it as to leave the audience in the dust.
Dan wrote back: “You may be right. Sometimes a critic mistakes an innovative form for a conventional form badly handled. Alas, the latter was what THIN WALLS struck me as—cardboard characters behaving like dumbbells. If the script is good, though, it will be done again—and we shall see.”
It was done again in D.C. the next year and the Washington Post thought, “Thin Walls,” Phoef Sutton’s provocative new play that opened last week at the New Playwrights’ Theatre, is a disturbing visit to the dark side of the television generation. Although the violence that runs like a virus through Sutton’s characters, infecting each in a different way, is not directly attributed to the tube, the influence is clear.”
Phoef’s fledging career as a playwright pretty much ended there, but his career in television, film and as a novelist took off. He began writing for ‘Cheers,” eventually becoming executive producer, worked on 67 episodes of Boston Legal and was show runner for Chesapeake Shores. If you friend him on Facebook, you’ll see great recommendations for what to watch on TCM each week.
I don’t know which of us—Dan or me– was right about the play—I don’t have the script to re-read. I did re-watch Alan Rudolph’s 1984 film ‘Choose Me,’ which I thought was terrific at the time and found pretty lame now, so the only thing I’m sure of is you never know.