A Work of Nonfiction by Steve Slavin
Anyone who writes a play would like to see it performed. Even when a bunch of random people are handed scripts, the play can miraculously come to life. Every playwright should be entitled to at least one such performance.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you were an aspiring actor or playwright, you might have gone to some of the readings at Peggy Deane’s Fourth Friday Playwrights. Every month dozens of friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers would meet at her apartment on East 48th Street.
Peggy was always very welcoming. “Hi, honey; I’m so happy to see you again!”
“But I’ve never been here before.”
‘I know that, sweetie, but I wanted you to feel comfortable.”
Another time: “November?”
“No, Lucinda. But I know someone named November.”
“Oh, be sure to bring her next time. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
If you’re beginning to get the impression that Peggy could be a little ditsy, you’d be right. It was just a part of her charm.
Almost every day, Peggy got at least one script in the mail. She read all of them, writing helpful and encouraging comments. But she couldn’t use more than two or three each month.
Once she asked me to read a script. The playwright had given Peggy, an ingénue just out of college, her very first acting job in New York. I was pretty sure she would put on the play even if it wasn’t very good.
“The Great Nijinsky” was about the life of an early twentieth century Russian ballet star. Sadly, the writing was not great. In fact, this play was perhaps the most awful thing I had ever read. To make matters worse, there was a cast of thirty or forty – which can make watching a cold reading pretty confusing even if the characters all wore large name tags.
When I handed the script back to Peggy, she asked me for my frank opinion.“It’s a piece of shit!”
“Oh my, oh my! … Tell me something, Steve. What did you think of the first act?”
“I cannot find the words to describe just how bad it was.”
“And the second act?”
“Almost as bad!”
“Thank you so much, Steve! I knew I could count on you for an honest opinion.”
“But you’ll put it on?”
“Only if I can find enough people to read all the parts.”
“I have an idea, Peggy. He has people speaking with Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Czech, French, German, Dutch, and Italian accents. You could have some of the actors read two or three or even four parts.”
“That might work! After all, who’s going to know if the accents aren’t right?”
“Actually, he doesn’t know any of those languages either.”
Two weeks later, just before the reading. I asked Peggy if she told the playwright what I thought of his play.
“Of course, Steve.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said that you liked the second act even more than the first.”
Perhaps to punish me, Peggy gave me four very short parts – each with a different accent. To pull this off, I sometimes spoke while clenching a pen with my teeth or pinching my nose. The woman sitting next to me attempted one accent using a tongue depressor, another with a mouthful of m&m’s, and a third by speaking while chewing the M&M’s. And another actor, who evidently was something of a linguist, played a Russian while employing an Italian accent, a Frenchman with a German accent, and an Italian with a Polish accent.
I think it would be fair to say that “The Great Nijinsky” seemed even worse when it was read out loud, while the switched accents did cause some puzzlement among those still trying to follow the action. But the word had apparently gotten around that the playwright was a dear friend of Peggy’s, so when she proclaimed, “Let’s hear it for the playwright!” he received polite applause.
When a young man attempted suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, the story made the third page of the New York Post. He had jumped off the bridge because no one would put on his play. As soon as Peggy read the story, she rushed to the hospital.
“Honey, I would be honored if you let us do a reading of your play at Fourth Friday Playwrights.” A few weeks later, Dan’s play was read before a large audience including a few newspaper reporters. Dan never missed a meeting of our group, but as far as I know, he never submitted another script.
Fourth Friday Playwrights followed a strict format. After about a half hour of socializing, Peggy would clap her hands and say, “OK, everybody, let’s stop talking to each other and having fun!” Then she would launch into a series of announcements such as that so-and-so from the group was appearing in an off-off Broadway play, or that someone else was looking for backers for her play.
It was then time for the first of two plays. The actors sat on the couches, and the audience sat on stackable chairs. Peggy often helped with casting the parts, sometimes making phone calls to actors she thought were well suited for certain roles. The quality of the acting was usually quite good.
When the play ended, Peggy would lead a discussion. There was just one rule: We could criticize the play, but “we never criticize the acting.”
Once, after a play with especially obscene dialogue, several people said there were too many “fucks” in the play. The next day Peggy called the playwright and said she loved her play, and thought it could even use another couple of “fucks.”
Another time, a woman named Diane said that the play they had just heard was a tragedy in every sense of the word. Trying to tone down that critique, Peggy suggested that what Diane meant was that the play was actually a comedy.
“But there was nothing comic about the play!”
“I know, honey, but I was just trying to put your remarks in a more optimistic light.”
In what might have otherwise been one of the worst plays put on at Fourth Friday, the playwright cast a man named Stosh in the role of a Southern colonel. He asked the entire ensemble to speak with exaggerated Southern accents. But he told Stosh, who still spoke with a thick Eastern European accent not to attempt a Southern drawl. “Just talk the way you always do, and make sure you roll your r’s.”
The play was so boring, the actors looked as though they might nod off – or even make fun of the play. The colonel’s name was Ashley, and his daughter, Rhonda Jo, had gone missing. His wife and a neighbor were wondering where she could be.
Finally, his wife said, “Ashley, where do you think Rhonda Jo is?”
After letting the question hang for several seconds, he said, “Vell, maybe zuh goil es mit herrrr frrrrends in zuh village.”
No one was expecting this. For the next couple of minutes, the room was filled with laughter. In fact, each time Stosh opened his mouth, everyone began to laugh.
Another play was so bad that the actors did make fun of it. Just as Diane was leaving the apartment, one of the actors shouted his line, “I can’t take this anymore!”
“Neither can I!” she yelled, just before the door closed behind her.
Growing up in Minnesota with a younger sister and brother, Peggy cast them in plays she had written. In the early 1950s, soon after arriving in New York, she found parts in off-Broadway plays, and eventually, roles in two Broadway plays. By then she was married, and when she got pregnant, her husband convinced her that their children would need her more than the theater.
But as nearly every actor will tell you, they never lose that craving to perform. For Peggy, Fourth Friday Playwrights allowed her to fulfill that need.
Several actors who came to Fourth Friday were regularly given parts, as were some very talented amateurs. Some people came just for the entertainment. Almost everyone brought a bottle or a nosh.
Occasionally, some guests were not so well behaved. One guy showed up with six friends, all of them empty-handed, and proceeded to almost eat and drink Peggy out of house and home. And, along the way, they managed to damage a sofa and spill wine all over a rug. As they were leaving, Peggy took the ringleader aside and said, “Larry, you’re always welcome in my home. But next time, could you try not to bring so many friends?
Then there was the huge woman who had taken a pot roast out of the refrigerator and was tearing into it with her finger nails.
“Oh, sweetie, let me make you a sandwich.”
But it was her kindnesses to the writers that was most touching. Some poor souls sent scripts that were so bad even after several go-arounds, that Peggy would finally concede that they were beyond redemption. Fortunately, she knew a former actress who ran a weekly play-reading group in a nearby public library. Anyone with a typed script could have it read. Peggy’s friend would joke that, “I’m just a girl that can’t say ‘no.’”
One evening at Fourth Friday, a middle aged man in a business suit asked if it would OK for him to recite a short poem. Peggy agreed.
When he finished, we all just sat there in stunned silence. What could we possibly say? It wasn’t necessary bad. But it was kind of empty. It almost made me burst out laughing.
Then Peggy asked him to repeat just the last line. He did.
Again there was silence. Then Peggy drew a deep breath and said, “Ah.”
Michael, a long-time member of our group, submitted a new play almost every month. But over the years, Peggy accepted just one – and that was after many revisions. Still, it was pretty bad.
Peggy asked me to try persuading Michael to submit less often. But he never gave up. One day he invited everyone in our group to a showcase production of the play that had been read at Fourth Friday. He cast professional actors and rented a tiny theater for a weekend. But just Peggy and I ended up representing our group.
While I can’t say that the play was that great, it was quite entertaining. After the actors took their final bows, Peggy whispered that maybe she had been wrong about Michael. But I knew that without her, his play would never have made it nearly this far.
Over the years we saw plays that made us laugh or cry – and sometimes both. There were plays that made us think and those that provided diversion. Peggy treated all of us as part of the theatrical world, and many of us accepted that on faith. And looking back all these years later, I still believe that she was right.
She gave chances to countless playwrights and actors, and provided thousands of New Yorkers with so many evenings of fine entertainment. Who knows how many careers in the theater she inspired or helped along. But mainly, hers was a work of love and joy.
Peggy died in 1988 after a long illness. I wish I could tell you that the group continued her work. But I can’t. There are still a few other playwrights’ groups in our city. But there was only one Peggy Deane.