5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Marc Palmieri

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Tristan Colton, Curzon Dobell, Susan Bennett
and Todd Lawson in Levittown. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

Levittown is inspired as well as informed by playwright Marc Palmieri’s personal relationship to the town where, in the aftermath of World War II, a man named Abraham Levitt, together with his sons William and Alfred, built one of the nation’s first planned communities in what had previously been potato farms. When Levittown was mounted a few years ago at the Axis Theatre as a workshop, I profiled it for Back Stage, at which time Palmieri kindly mailed me an autographed copy of the published script. We’ve since become friends — largely through Palmieri’s director, George Demas, with whom I’ve been friends just about forever — and so I was thrilled to see that Demas’ company, The Cliplight Theater, was bringing Levittown back for another go-round. Palmieri has made some changes to the script and, having seen the play, I’d advise a trip to St. Clements to check it out.

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Levittown runs Aug. 1 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46th St.); for tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.cliplighttheater.com.

And now, 5 questions Marc Palmieri has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I was doing a one-week residence as a visiting artist, I guess one would call it, at Wake Forest University a couple years ago. Sharon Andrews, the professor who taught the playwriting course, among others, had the students read all my plays (all three) before I visited. She asked me, or rather observed for me, how the plays are much about the same things, the same obsessions psychologically and philosophically, regardless of how different in tone and style they are. Here I had written a romantic comedy, a family drama and a collection of one-acts and she pointed out that they are all wrangling with the same basic questions about life. I liked that. I felt an identity forming as a playwright.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A director who’d optioned a screenplay of mine asked me about the “poem” referred to in the story. He was concerned that nobody would know what an albatross was, and if I could use a “different bird.” That led, you can understand, to my asking him to clarify his request. “You did make this up, right?” he said. “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner?” Oh boy was I tempted to say “Yes.”

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Hmmm…

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4) A replication of an actual Levitt House is the set of your play. How eerie is that?
Levittown uses my grandfather’s war story as a profoundly formative experience in one of the characters. He passed away this year, on June 3, in his Levitt house on Long Island — June 3 was our first day of rehearsal. Michele Spadaro, our genius set designer, has created an exact replica of my grandparents’ home on the stage at St. Clement’s. When I look at it I am proud, proud that this classic American house, and the people that populated all of them after World War II, like my family, are having one of their stories told on the New York stage. Eerie might not be the word I’d use. Humbling, I’d rather say. I’ve been spared the horrors of war in my life, but for so many who weren’t in those days, like my grandfather and so many others, such a house was a new beginning after a young adulthood facing unthinkable trauma. The house on stage seems to say to me, “You better mean what you’ve written, Marc, because you’re treading on very serious ground, and you’ve hardly earned the right.”

5) It seems that for a generation or two now, Levittown has been a punch line as much as a great idea (think of that one-liner in Little Shop of Horrors!). Can you describe what it’s like living in Levittown today? Do the people living there know they’re participating in a great urban/suburban experiment?
The people I’ve met are well aware of the history of their neighborhood, but are used to it and hardly find it as fascinating as one might from the outside. They are hard working, often blue collar families who have real life concerns, not a lot of time to sit around and ponder the poetic significance or ironies of Levitt’s experiment. We received a generous donation of lumber and materials from the East Meadow Home Depot out there, and during the many trips back and forth I spoke to many people about the play and they seemed very excited about it, and agreed with me that there is much to mine dramatically in such a place.

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Bonus Question:

6) You act as well as write. Why do you think some actors are inspired to start writing while others would never think to pick up a pen? What’s inside of you that makes you need to write?
Well, I’ll answer the last question first. Inside me is a deep love for the experience of a play, a great need to connect with my fellow human beings, just as an audience member, together in empathy with characters before us subjected to the trials and mysteries of the human condition. That deep love gives me enough crazy courage to hope I have a few good plays in me, and so I write and hope for the miracle. I can’t say why some actors write or don’t write. I’ve known great actors who are great writers and great actors who have no interest in writing. I do know that every time I have a play produced I am very, very grateful that I am in New York, where the great actors are. Without them, I can forget the miracle.

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