DORSET -- It's a play within a play, with a twist, of course. Maybe multiple twists.
Add in a well-known celebrity actor, an award winning playwright who is also an accomplished actor in a play that hasn't been publicly staged yet, and you have the makings of not only some great theater, but something more. It marks a stepping out of sorts for the Dorset Theatre Festival, a going to the next level in community summer stock theater.
In "The Whore and Mr. Moore" a new play written by Michael Cristofer, a playwright heads for the coast of Maine in hopes of finding the inspiration to extract one last great play. There he meets up a friendly ghost who helps out in the inspiration process. Things get a little complicated, but funny as well. The play takes on something of a life of its own, Cristofer wrote in an e-mail when asked to describe the play.
"The play we are watching is the play he is writing," he wrote. "So it gets very interesting. Funny, sad and romantic ... all at once, I hope."
Dorset theater-goers may remember Cristofer from two year's ago when he acted in another premiere staged in Dorset; Theresa Rebeck's play "the Novelist." Judd Hirsch, the actor who plays the playwright haunted, in a sense, by the ghost, is one of those actors who truly don't need an introduction. For those who haven't been watching any television or gone to a movie for the last 40 years, here's the thumbnail sketch -- he won Emmy Awards twice for his role in the TV sitcom "Taxi" back in the early 1980s, and was also nominated for an Academy Award for a supporting role in the movie "Ordinary People."
His other television credits include parts in the shows "Delvecchio," "Law and Order" and more recently, "Numb3rs." His acting roles in movies have included parts in "The Goodbye People," "Running on Empty" and "A Beautiful Mind." Go to Wikipedia for a listing of all the parts he's played over a film career that began in 1971 and it takes two full pages to print them all. Not bad for a kid from The Bronx.
Cristofer packs plenty of star power as well, both as an actor and a playwright. He's won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony award for the Broadway production of his play "The Shadow Box." He also handled the screenwriting of the movie version of the play, which was directed by Paul Newman. Along the way, he wrote screenplays for "The Witches of Eastwick" and "The Bonfires of the Vanities." Not bad for a kid from Trenton, N.J.
Put it all together -- new play, star actor, award-winning playwright -- and you have the feeling of upward momentum, said Dina Janis, now in her third year as the artistic director of the Dorset Theatre Festival.
Staging this play has created some buzz and generated a lot more attention for the festival, which could translate in making it far easier to attract more well-known talent in the future, she said.
"Having someone (Hirsch) who is that well-known clearly pushes us up to the next level in terms of the kind of talent we can interest in coming up here," she said. "Once you cross that threshold it makes it easier."
Older model of summer stock
It's a throwback of sorts to an older model of summer stock theater, when accomplished actors would perform in community theaters if the play was new and interesting, she said.
In this case, one thing led to another -- Rebeck's play two year's ago interested Cristofer, who in turn has known Hirsch for years, and Cristofer's play interested Hirsch in turn, she said.
In response to an e-mailed question, Hirsch said he was drawn to the play and the role because it was rare to get a combination of farcical comedy written with depth and imagination.
"The play is a total invitation to do what theatricality will dare and the superb humor of Michael Cristofer,' he wrote. "Part of the preparation of doing this part of Mr. Moore was to try to figure out what the hell the play was about! And that's exactly the dilemma of the character -- being inside the creation of his own pen, while it sometimes writes without him!"
When it comes to writing plays, Cristofer said he tends to jump into plays without necessarily knowing where they are going to wind up or how they will end.
The original idea grew out of a proposal involving a remake of the cinema classic "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." Cristofer suggested flipping the roles, so that a man is haunted by the ghost of a dead woman. That concept didn't gain traction, but it planted the germ of an idea in Cristofer, and later led to "The Whore and Mr. Moore."
Then it evolved into more of a comedy than he intended, but that's sometimes the way his approach to playwrighting works, he added.
"... like the character of the playwright in the play, I seem to have had no control over these evolutions," he said in his emailed reply to a set of questions. "Except to make them as entertaining as possible and perhaps say one or two things about love and loneliness and the inexplicable process by which an idea in a playwright's head becomes something like a play."
"The Whore and Mr. Moore" will be staged from Aug. 2-11. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org.