Mr. Chatterbox

By staff October 1, 2006

The times they are a-changing here in Sarasota. There’s a whole new downtown, red tide is getting worse and now we have year-round traffic. But perhaps the most unexpected change has been Rita Greenbaum’s emergence as the town’s leading avant-garde playwright.

You know Rita, or if you don’t, you’ve seen pictures of her. She and her husband, Ron, have been a major part of the social scene for over 20 years. But what distinguishes Rita from the rest of the crowd is her looks. If you called up Central Casting and said, “Send over a trophy wife” and Rita showed up, you’d be thrilled. Nobody quite looks the part like Rita. The clothes, the hair, the movie star face. She looks like the love child of Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall.

As with many great beauties, there is a hint of reserve to her expression, almost a haughty pout. To men she seems to be saying, “I could wrap you right around my little finger and then toss you away like a used hankie.” To women the message is, “Outta my way, sister, I saw him first.” (Now let me make clear, Rita is not like this at all. She is a sweet, kind person, a do-gooder, almost. I only emphasize her looks because this is, to a large degree, a story about how people can become trapped by their looks.)

The whole thing started about a year and half ago at the Kanes’ Oscar party, that wonderful get-together of the town’s elite that, alas, wasn’t held this year (talk about changes). I bumped into Ron and Rita and she told me that she was going back to school to get her B.A. at Eckerd, and that as part of a course requirement, she had written a play. I immediately asked to see it. Who wouldn’t? A play by Rita Greenbaum. What on earth could it possibly be like?

I myself had written plays, or rather, attempted to write plays, and had found them perhaps the most difficult creative endeavor there is. You can fake poetry, and a story or a novel is actually just a long letter to a friend (if it’s done right). But a play—that requires putting together the most intricate conglomeration of words and images and gestures, all woven into a plot that must rivet an audience on the simple, most primitive level. They have to pay attention.

Rita hemmed and hawed and, like most fledgling writers, kept dragging her feet, but finally, after several months, I received a copy of the play. It was called Safe Place? I scanned the first page. It seemed to be about a bunch of women sitting around a shelter talking about being abused. Uh oh, I thought. Definitely not my cup of tea.

But I kept reading. The dialogue wasn’t bad. Big, vivid, speeches, and one of the characters had a foul mouth, something I always enjoy in the theater. But one of the other characters I couldn’t figure out. What was she doing there? She certainly didn’t seem to have much to say. And just when I thought things were winding down and I was vastly relieved that at least I’d be able to tell Rita, gee, it’s kind of interesting—well, something happened. It was a look, actually, just a look, from one of the characters to another, and my hair stood on end. Oh, my God—so that’s what’s been going on this whole time. It had been hinted at but I hadn’t seen it. Well, now it was out in the open. The play was something else than I thought it was, something much bigger and infinitely more dramatic. From then on Safe Place? grabbed onto you and raced to its conclusion like a speeding train, or at least a very fast bus.

I suggested to Rita that we do a reading of it in her living room, so we gathered up a cast and had one quick rehearsal. Then an invited audience came over—mostly friends of the Greenbaums, like the Palmers and the Hammers. We made sure they got plenty to drink. And there, sitting on the dining room table, was a sumptuous buffet. We made it clear they had to sit through the whole play before they could eat.

Our little plan worked. I suggest more producers try it. Of course, the Turoffs serve food with plays, but they let you eat before the show. Save the food for afterwards is my advice. And put it in a place where the audience can see it, during scene changes or lulls in the dialogue. I can guarantee nobody will walk out.

Everything seemed to be going our way. Even a thunder and lightening storm plainly visible out by the pool cage added to the spooky Southern Gothic effect. Although I was a little nonplused when afterward, during the Q&A, several audience members complained that there wasn’t a second half. They saw it as the first act of a two-act. Or maybe a three- or four-act. They wanted it to go on forever. I took this as quite an accomplishment, particularly with all that food sitting there.

But what do you do with a new play after you perform it in your living room? That’s right—you enter it in the Players Theatre New Play Contest, held every July. Over 40 plays are entered. They select six, which then get staged readings. One is chosen as the winner and then gets a full production.

I talked Rita into submitting Safe Place? and guess what—it was selected as a finalist! We put another, slightly different cast together: Jamie Day, as the foul-mouthed lap dancer/coke addict, Paula Farlin as the religious woman being abused by her boyfriend, K.T. Curran as the glib social worker, Tiger Curran (K.T.’s daughter) as the terrified 18-year-old Vietnamese girl who didn’t speak English, and Jane Baxendale as Charlotte, the mysterious middle-aged woman you can’t quite figure out.

You should have seen us the night of the performance. We were paired with another one-act, Vincent and Sol by Howard Rayfiel. It went first. I watched nervously. I certainly didn’t want it to do better than us, and thank God, it went just right. Completely different from Safe Place?, it left the audience wanting more. Then, after a short intermission, Burton Wolfe, producing artistic director of the Players, came out and issued a disclaimer about the language in Rita’s play. Then Jeff Kin, head of the New Play Series, came out and issued another disclaimer. Of course by this time the audience was chomping at the bit to see how bad it would get.

I must say, by the time the play was over the audience had forgotten all about the language. They’d gotten so caught up in the play and the characters that at many places you could have heard a pin drop. Afterward there was a discussion, and Rita and I heard the magic words “brilliant” and “moving” and “important” fill the air. The only thing I can’t figure out is why we didn’t win the contest. That honor went to Plenty Horses by George Loukides. It’s a lovely play, I hear, but it certainly doesn’t need two different disclaimers.

Rita accepted the accolades graciously, and I’m glad to report that never for a moment did she stoop to looking like an intellectual. I was afraid she might show up in a Gloria Steinem-like turtleneck and jeans, but no, she wore low-slung, skin-tight white slacks, stiletto heels, a see-through lace jacket, fitted at the waist, with some sort of bra thing underneath, and about $50,000 worth of jewelry. I was reminded of what Bob Dylan once said: “The truth is the truth, no matter where you find it. And sometimes you find it in the candy store.”

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