PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With The Wood Playwright Dan Klores

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With The Wood Playwright Dan Klores
 
Mike McAlary, the late New York City newspaperman, is profiled in The Wood, a new Off-Broadway play by Dan Klores. Now, meet the playwright behind the headlines.

Dan Klores
Dan Klores

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Dan Klores has had three distinct careers — public relations executive, award-winning documentary filmmaker and playwright. In PR, his clients included Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, Diddy and Howard Stern, as well as the National Basketball Association, Delta, Showtime and Sirius Satellite Radio. His six films, beginning in 2003, include "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," "Black Magic" and "Crazy Love." The latter won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best documentary. His first play, Little Doc, opened at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre last year. His newest play, The Wood, is now in previews at Rattlestick, opening Sept. 15. The play's director is David Bar Katz.

The Wood is about Mike McAlary, a columnist for The New York Daily News who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story and covering the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who in August 1997 was sodomized by police officers with a broomstick at a Brooklyn police station. While McAlary was reporting the story, he was suffering from terminal cancer — he died little more than a year later, at age 41, on Christmas Day in 1998.

Let's start with what's happening now. Let's talk about The Wood. Where did you get the idea? What made you decide to make it a play?
Dan Klores: First of all, "The Wood" is a slang term for the front page of a tabloid newspaper.

John Viscardi in The Wood.
photo by Sandra Coudert

It's the headline. I remember it from my days at The Daily News. Because the headline type was set in wood.
DK: Right. That's exactly where it came from. McAlary was a friend of mine. A good friend. I've always felt his loss. But one of the most intriguing things in his life, if you can translate it into an art form, is this choice he had one day. He had suffered greatly — in two ways. He took writing a column and his profession extremely seriously. As a young man, in his 30s, he had gotten great success and notoriety, and with that came lots of jealousy — some of which he brought upon himself. He was a little immature, brash; he was young. So he kept on flopping back and forth — The New York Post, Newsday, The News [then Post, News, Post, News] — and he kept on making more money, so of course resentment came with that. But he had written a politically incorrect column while at The News, in 1994, and his reputation, which was everything to him, seemed like it was irrevocably destroyed. This was made worse by the fact that two years before, he had suffered a terrible head injury in a car accident — he was in a coma for six days. He was never quite the same. Now he writes this politically incorrect column. A black woman said she was raped in Prospect Park, and Mike wrote that she had lied. He refused to give up his sources, and he endured an avalanche of criticism, a lot of it from his colleagues at The News, but also from people around the city, and from the competitors of The News — The Post — and from the politically correct crowd. This really devastated him. He was a young man with a family. At that point he had three little children.

In the midst of all this, he was diagnosed with colon cancer that had already metastasized in his liver. So at 38, his reputation was destroyed, and he was going to die, though he would have this incredible attitude and never, ever, ever admit that. And on his way to chemotherapy one morning — this is the basis of The Wood — he got a call, he got another tip, about another rape in Brooklyn. The basis of the play is what does the character do? Does he go to this chemotherapy session, thinking, or deluding himself into believing, that this is actually going to save his life? Or does he follow the lead, to not merely another column, not merely another story, but perhaps to something greater than that in terms of another thing he lost — his reputation?

Having said that, because it is Mike, at least in the first act there's a lot of humor. But of course it goes in another direction later on.

John Viscardi and Melanie Charles in The Wood.
photo by Sandra Coudert

Well, of course we know what his decision was, because McAlary wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Abner Louima story. So in a sense, most people coming to the play are going to know the result. How do you deal with that in writing the play?
DK: First of all, I have a wonderful director. His name is David Bar Katz. He's a great writer himself. So we're using a tactic if you will of flashing back often. Not telling this in a linear way. The play moves back and forth in a way that the decision is not really the dramatic point. It's the concerns and fears that go into not merely making that decision but regaining trust in yourself and in others around you. I think there were people who didn't want Mike to be right again. There was a lot of pressure on him, even though it was clear that Louima was sodomized. If you recall, there were other issues around that case. Louima himself had lied about many things, and that complicates stuff.

A critic recently called you "a keen observer of specific New York stories" — of which this of course is one — "with a solid grasp of socio-historical context." Some of your work, especially "Crazy Love," about a New York lawyer who blinded his estranged mistress, went to prison for 14 years and then wound up marrying her, seems to fit in that context. Do you agree with that assessment?
DK: Yeah. I'm comfortable working in what I know. I grew up in Brooklyn. I've lived in New York most of my life. I also lived in the South for 10 years, in South Carolina, so I'm comfortable in that. I'm a good New York storyteller. If you want me to tell a story about the Victorian era, then you're asking for an absolute disaster.

Tell me a little about yourself — where you grew up, and how you wound up in public relations.
DK: That was an accident. And I'm not involved in public relations any more. I grew up in Brooklyn in the '50s and '60s. I went to Lincoln High School. I was not interested in school, so I floundered for many years, doing stuff I shouldn't have done.

John Viscardi in The Wood.
photo by Sandra Coudert

I know you had a drug problem in your earlier years.
DK: Yes. Right. I was clean, by the way, by '73.

I was a freelance writer. In the late 1970s, I would freelance for New York Magazine. And I think I did some writing for The Daily News and the Tonight section it had then. You know the life of a freelancer. I had no money.

I was always involved in politics though. I worked for a Democratic Party consulting firm in South Carolina; wrote copy for gubernatorial and senatorial races, including Bill Clinton in Arkansas — we lost his 1980 [gubernatorial] election; came back to New York and was press secretary to Democratic candidate John Matthews in the [1981] Nassau County executive race. We won the primary, lost the election to the Republican machine.

I BS'd myself into a PR job. I worked for Morty Matz [a legendary New York press agent]. That was my first job. He saved my life — 1981 — I had $3 in my bank account. Then I worked for Howard Rubenstein [head of a major PR firm], and I formed my own agency in 1991. I did very well.

I think you did more than very well.
DK: But I'll tell you something — I hated every minute of it. With a passion. I don't know if it had anything to do with [my decision to be a filmmaker], but I got sick years ago, and when I came out of it I had this idea that I wanted to make a documentary film. And I did — "The Boys of 2nd Street Park." And I never looked back.

Yes, I read somewhere that in the late 1990s you had hepatitis C, and it was attributed to your earlier drug problems, and you were told that you might in the end die from it, and that's what led you to go into filmmaking.
DK: Yeah. Well I don't know if it led me, it wasn't like OK I have this and I'm going to do that. I just didn't want to do public relations any more. And I'm so lucky, because the people that run the firm, which still has my name, they're like my brothers and sons. I have great trust in them. I could have sold the firm for God knows how much money, but instead I gave it to them.

Why documentary filmmaking?
DK: I had this idea to do "The Boys of 2nd Street Park."

Is that about your childhood?
DK: Yes, but I didn't put myself in it. It's about six guys that grow up in Brighton Beach and Coney Island in the 1950s, and the refuge of the basketball court, the innocence of the park, then the counterculture and then what happens to them. I didn't know what form I wanted to tell that story in, but I got to know Ken Burns, and he had a partner, still does, Lynn Novick, and she was encouraging me to tell it in documentary form. And I did it. And I did it well. I sold that film, it was my first film, it got into Sundance, and Showtime bought it for a half million dollars. It really worked out well. And that's a real New York story. My next film, "Ring of Fire – the Emile Griffith Story," a New York story. "Crazy Love," a New York story. "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," a New York story.

Billy Tangradi and Tobias Segal in Little Doc.
photo by Sandra Coudert

So now, after six films, you decided to write a play.
DK: I wrote another play that was pretty much a disaster, my first play, Little Doc, which came out last year. A great learning experience, and I hope I learned some of the right lessons.

Why did you decide to switch from filmmaking to theatre?
DK: I got bored. Documentary filmmaking just started boring me. I'm signed to do a film on Jimmy Breslin. And that's going to be my last doc, period. I have no interest in doing another documentary. I don't want to do it. But I wanted to do this before that.

Are you planning to write more plays?
DK: I hope so. Rattlestick has been great to me. Little Doc was flawed, but they wanted me back. Which was really great. You can have a flop and it's easy to walk away and say, 'I'm not going to do that again.' But they embraced me, and I'm really grateful for that.

A play is hard. It's really hard. Especially in a 99-seat theatre. Technically this is a difficult show to put up. Some of it's in a hospital room, some of it's in a newsroom, and some of it's in a police station. And it's a small stage. You're allowed five and a half hours a day rehearsal. You only can rehearse for four weeks. And that includes ten days around a table.

The other thing that's hard, when you write about someone you know and who was a public figure — it's difficult for a playwright to see an actor up there. I have to get over the fact that imitating McAlary is not part of the bargain. The actor has to find "it" himself. I'm lucky because I have a director — and I think most directors are like that — a good percentage of them are psychotherapists.

So that's a challenge. I think it's going to work. I think there's a real sweetness to the play, believe it or not. Mike was a big personality. I think for anyone who loves news, I think it's going to click. And then there are the issues of race — those are always the most profound issues in our society.

Merv Rothstein's work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine and Playbill.com. He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre feature.

John Viscardi, Michael Carlsen and Vladimir Versailles in <i>The Wood</i>.
John Viscardi, Michael Carlsen and Vladimir Versailles in The Wood. Photo by Sandra Coudert
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