Theater archives

The Literal Life


King Solomon, when not threatening to bisect babies, could turn quite a phrase. In Ecclesiastes he notes, “Of making books there is no end,” a statement anyone who’s lost their way in a university library can affirm. But in recent years, plays about making books—the editing and publishing of them—have been rather a rarity, Eric Overmyer’s In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe and Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire excepted. With Endpapers, perhaps something of a vanity publication, Thomas McCormack joins the spare catalog.

McCormack spent nearly 40 years in publishing, 28 of them at St. Martin’s Press, where he began as an editor and retired as CEO. In other words, McCormack has an immense acquaintance with his subject matter, and his knowledge provides most of Endpapers‘ interest. When the executioner Abhorson remarks in Measure for Measure that his trade “is a mystery,” he surely means it in the guild-structure sense. But in our own guildless (if gilded) age, trades remain mysteries—intriguing ones. Almost any profession has its unique rituals and argot, its arcana and apocrypha. Even the humblest occupation has professional secrets (viz., masonry), and great attraction lies in the books, films, or plays that divulge them.

When Endpapers busies itself revealing why a writer might choose one house over another, what sort of changes an editor might request a writer make, or how it’s determined which books will prove a hit, it’s a fast read. But the exposé eventually gives way to a predictable plot involving the dying CEO of a debt-ridden publishing house and his difficulty in choosing a successor. Should he pick Griff (Bruce McCarty), the frank idealist, or Ted (Tim Hopper), the savvy realpolitiker? Lest the question appear too much like a letter to the Ethicist, McCormack tosses in some internecine squabbles, specters of alcoholism, and a pair of outrageous authors.

Against Neil Patel’s ugly if verisimilar office set, the employees of Joshua Maynard and Co. trade barbs and bromides. McCormack has created a cadre of bright and likable characters, who say smart things and quote smarter ones. They even know that “kudos” is a singular noun. (McCormack also invents a new type of character—the banker with a heart of gold.) The cast generally acquit themselves well, the men somewhat better than the women—unsurprising, as those roles are more fully conceived. Hopper has unctuous fun with Ted, delivering pronouncements with a fine and gently mocking suavity, and Pippa Pearthree bestows an addled acerbity on senior editor Cora. Maria Thayer, as the CEO’s flummoxed daughter, has mastered affability if not believability, but she may learn it in time.

Director Pamela Berlin moves the action along briskly enough, and assuages McCormack’s awkward scene transitions—thanks in part to Rui Rita’s angular lighting design. (Though why she felt sound designer Ken Travis’s folky transition-covering guitar music appropriate remains a puzzler.) What Berlin can’t cover is the essential banality of the plot and central conflict—the two men arguing resembles nothing so much as Hegelian dialectic downgraded to sitcom. The play seems the work of an intelligent man with a flair for dialogue and little sense of what might make a piece theatrically compelling. Though McCormack has a talent for one-liners, he hasn’t yet learned that when they don’t reveal character, deepen atmospherics, or push the plot along, they’re not particularly welcome. McCormack also has a taste for platitudes (“in biography there are no lessons, only stories,” “philosophy doesn’t apply—this is business”), which aren’t welcome anywhere. Considering his professional history, it’s a great—if obvious—irony that what McCormack could most have used was an editor.

Unfortunately, not even an editor of the caliber of Maxwell Perkins or Katherine White could salvage the final evening of Andhow!’s Sound Play, a series of 10-minute plays inspired by the original sound design of Jill BC DuBoff. In fact, a form rejection letter might have been a service.

Sound designers typically receive less consideration than any other member of the design team. Often their work is added as an afterthought or displayed at nearly inaudible levels. But clever, innovative sound work can make itself indispensable. This year alone, the Wooster Group’s To You, the Birdie! would have been unthinkable without the amplified badminton game, and Target Margin’s Sandman relied on the intended misadventures of a sound board op and the noises he loosed. To grant sound designers a moment in the spotlight, Andhow! commissioned Duboff to craft a 10-minute design relating to the theme “New York Rewound.” Then three playwrights each contributed a 10-minute piece inspired by the design.

Many wrongs derive from worthy impulses (the skort?), and the Duboff evening proves no exception. The enthusiasm that director Jessica Davis-Irons expressed in a brief speech introducing the project was admirable and infectious. It was also the highlight of the show. DuBoff took her assignment rather literally, capturing the city’s cacophony of subway departures, police sirens, and ice cream trucks and intermixing them with pieces of pop music. Playwrights Sharon Eberhardt, Robyn Burland, and Andrew Irons approached her handiwork with equally unimaginative literal-mindedness. Two plays told love stories (one farcical, one romantic), the third recounted the life of a petulant suicide, but the pieces’ relation to the soundscape made them nearly interchangeable. In at least two of the three, a car horn placed the characters on a street corner, an orchestra led them to the ballet or the symphony, the bellow of boats carried them to the pier, and when “You Should Be Dancing” struck up, they danced. Vaneik Echevarria and Kelly Van Zile played all the characters, he with blitheness, she with shrillness. By the end, the most welcome sounds were the applause, the rustle for packages, and the creak of the door opening to the street.