It’s 1972, in a plush Manhattan apartment with a sensational view of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which were brand new back then. Invoking this fateful image today, however — with the audience aware of the towers’ fate — establishes a pensive mood.
So goes California Stage Winter’s Waltz, a temperamental and intimate drama by local veteran writer Richard Broadhurst. The play combines pungent comedy with a look into life’s disappointments, and with a little burst of sunshine toward the end.
The central character — a fading, aging playwright from Middle America — is likewise musing on things that haven’t turned out as planned. He scored a big hit on Broadway in the 1950s, which then became a popular Oscar-winning film, and he was the toast of the town.
But two decades later his phone no longer rings with calls from Hollywood agents interested in the film rights to his work. And on Broadway, his plays have gone seriously out of style. And he knows it.
As he tells a young man named Jamal: “I’m afraid I am considered … old-fashioned as a writer.”
Jamal responds: “So, you’re like famous. Should I know you?”
Playwright tells him: “Not anymore.”
He’s being painfully honest. And the world-weary playwright has a visitor, Jamal — young and city-dwelling in an outfit recalling blaxploitation films of the ’70s, like Shaft. The social chasm between these men is vast, even when it comes to music. The old playwright fondly recalls Glenn Miller, who was all the rage when the playwright came of age during the Great Depression. The younger man is devoted to jazz by the likes of John Coltrane.
These are guys from dramatically different eras and different places, and this comes out as they chat.
Jamal: “You’re not from the city, are you?”
Playwright: “I grew up in Kansas.”
Jamal: “You’re kidding, man.”
Playwright: “No, not at all”
Jamal: “That’s like cowboy, cow country.”
Playwright: “It’s a bit more colorful than that.”
Jamal: “Colorful, sure. … You knew like three black people growing up?”
So why is this unlikely pair meeting? It’s a business deal. The young man sells marijuana, which the old writer wants to try for the first time, mostly because he’s bored. They light up like giddy schoolboys, which comes across as quaint, with recreational pot now legal in California. The old playwright is trying hard, maybe a bit too hard, to be friendly.
Then things turn moody, though, and each man gradually opens up, and some deep-seated personal issues emerge.
Broadhurst’s story is loosely inspired by the life of William Inge, a playwright born in Kansas in 1913. Inge won a Pulitzer for Drama in 1953, but his plays — set in small, quiet towns in rural states —fell out of favor, and Inge watched his literary reputation fade during the social tumult of the ’60s. Inge tried his hand at writing novels, but they got mixed reviews and didn’t sell well. When he took his life in 1973, at age 60, he was a largely forgotten man.
Broadhurst decided to write this play after a residency at Inge’s childhood home several years ago, but eventually the script ended up in a drawer for 15 years. Credit director Janis Stevens, actors Loren Taylor and Tony Scroggin and California Stage for this overdue premiere. It’s a well-crafted two character duet, deftly staged, and very much worth seeing.
The drama Winter’s Waltz continues through February 18 at California Stage in Sacramento.