STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Kevin Rehac - From Publicist to Playwright

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Kevin Rehac - From Publicist to Playwright How many times have we heard of would-be playwrights who take a job in the theatre -- any job -- planning to keep it only until they finish that play? And while they're still putting the finishing touches on their second acts, find they're still entrenched in their day-jobs as retirement approaches?

How many times have we heard of would-be playwrights who take a job in the theatre -- any job -- planning to keep it only until they finish that play? And while they're still putting the finishing touches on their second acts, find they're still entrenched in their day-jobs as retirement approaches?

That hasn't happened to Kevin Rehac, who's been a Broadway publicist for the past six years but still found enough time to write Chasing Monsters, just about to have its world premiere.

"I'm as surprised as anyone that it's happening," says the 29-year-old playwright.

Actually, Rehac is still moderately surprised that he wound up in theater at all. For if, as Bobby says in A Chorus Line, "Suicide in Buffalo is redundant," what must it be like growing up a full 40 minutes away in Akron, New York, pop. 2,906? "The main street is a dead end at both ends," Rehac reports, "and that's a perfect metaphor for the town."

Theatre was unknown in the Rehac family. "My parents," he says, "were blue-collar, owned a bar, and never went to college. Neither did my older brother or sister. I was a mutant to all of them." Especially after a trip to the library, where Rehac happened on Daniel Blum's Pictorial History of the American Theatre. "Before I found that," he reminisces, "I didn't know live theatre existed. Then I was the only teenager in Akron who knew who Jane Cowl was."

Soon he was watching the Tonys on TV, shufflin' off to Buffalo to see the road show of Singin' in the Rain, and deciding to become an actor. He attended Syracuse, where he played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Marvin in In Trousers, and Jerry in The Zoo Story. In 1992, just before he was graduated, Rehac won the First Annual Arthur Storch Acting Award, named for the director who, yes, staged Golden Rainbow on Broadway, but later has a distinguished career at Syracuse Stage.

Then it was off to Ithaca, where he reprised Marvin at the Hangar Theatre, followed by a tour of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme -- "half in English, half in French, of which I speak a petit peu." After that, Rehac felt brave enough to brave New York, where he immediately landed a part in then-unknown Michael Mayer's production of Hansel and Gretel for Theatreworks.

Upon his return to New York, Rehac "saw what a zoo an Equity open call could be," and instead of doing "telephone survey crap," he took the advice of Syracuse pal Tom D'Ambrosio, as associate of legendary Broadway press agent Jeffrey Richards, to try publicity.

"I didn't even really know what it was," says Rehac. "It's not something you see in the Yellow Pages. But I sent Jeff a letter that admitted I didn't know anything but was a lover of theatre who'd like to be his assistant. He called and said to come in."

Rehac was hired in June, 1993, and was reunited with ol' pal D'Ambrosio -- for a week. "Tom got another job,: he says, "and here I was, suddenly given the responsibility for handling the publicity for Annie Warbucks and Lynn Redgrave's Shakespeare for My Father."

He especially loved the latter. "Lynn was always so sweet to me. When I was invited to the closing night party, I surmised that it was the obligatory gesture for the press agent. But when I walked in, Lynn threw her arms in the air and said, 'Kevin's here!'"

And yet, Rehac knew he hadn't found his niche. Should he return to those Equity calls? But one day in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Jersey City -- "where I was living in an apartment where the snow came through the window along with the roaches" -- he started writing a play.

Everyone does, but Rehac finished Chasing Monsters in October, 1997. "The play is about getting past the past," he says. "It involves two couples -- and a monster in an Adirondack lake. Marjorie often sits in a rowboat looking for the monster that she and her husband once saw. She's obsessively convinced that the monster killed him. She can't get past that, even though there's this man named Jack who lives nearby and has huge resources of love for her."

The other couple consists of Marjorie's 30-year-old daughter Carolyn, and her husband. "Carolyn wanted to be an artist, but quit art school 10 years earlier to marry her painting instructor, an older man. He's finally about to have his first exhibition, but she steals a painting he did of her because she doesn't think it's very good. Then she goes to see her mother in the cabin. She too is going to learn that you have to chase down all your monsters so you can get along with your life."

While writing, Rehac had Joanne Woodward in mind for Marjorie. Thoughts of Woodward went into the woodwork once he saw a TV presentation of All My Sons with Michael Learned as Kate. "I never watched her when she played the mother in "The Waltons," so I didn't know she could be so amazing. I also noticed that there were a lot of similarities between Kate and Marjorie. So I decided to get the script to her."

Rehac did not feel he was reaching beyond his grasp. "Stars," he says, "no matter how wonderful they are, need roles, too. Some of them are really looking for work."

Spoken like a true publicist -- who, by this point, had left Jeff Richards (after, to be frank, a physical altercation that spurred Rehac to take legal action -- and win). Rehac was hired by Keith Sherman, best known as the press agent for the Tony Awards.

So the boy who used to sit in Akron and wistfully watch the Tonys on TV suddenly became one of the first people on the planet to know who the nominees are. "I still get a thrill," he says, "when I realize that the person I just placed in position for a photograph was Julie Andrews."

Rehac does, however, shudder when he remembers what happened at the 50th Anniversary Tony Awards, when he was given three statues to use for pictures with celebrities. "It was my sworn mission not to let them out of my sight, and yet," he sighs, "one got away. George Grizzard has just won his Tony for A Delicate Balance, and I'm harassing him, 'Is that Tony one of mine?'

"I dread May," he admits. "It's the highest stress I've ever felt. Sometimes I feel like a busboy, because some people don't treat you well. Mercedes Ruehl has been great, and so has Rosie O'Donnell, but for some of them, you no sooner do something nice, and it's 'What else can you do for me?'"

It's enough to make a press agent work that much harder to get his play produced. "Keith knew Michael Learned's manager, so I got in touch with him and asked if she'd read the script. I could feel he was protective of her just from the way he said, 'I'll read it and see.' I thought, that's that."

No, it wasn't. Three days later, Learned called Rehac to say she loved the play and would do a reading. Weeks later, she was at the Directors Company doing just that. "And then," Rehac says, "I had producers storming up to me and saying, 'I want to do this! I have to do this play!'"

Of course, none of them did.

"But Michael was intent on making it happen," he says. "And eventually she suggested that I send the script to Ralph Waite to see if he'd play Jack."

You may be surprised to hear that Rehac didn't immediately bite when Papa Walton was mentioned. "'What is this,' I asked her, 'Chasing Monsters on Waltons' Mountain'? I didn't want it to be about that. But then she said, 'Do you mean because Ralph and I did that series that we can never ever again work together?"

Rehac saw her point, and sent the script to Waite. "Then a few days later," he says, "she called and said that he loved it. She also said that Jim McKenzie at the Westport Playhouse had always wanted them to do a play together, and that this could be it."

He called McKenzie -- "who then came to my sixth-floor walk-up on 108th Street and saw friends of mine read the play. And things just kept happening."

As they will from July 19-31, when Michael Learned and Ralph Waite play Chasing Monsters at the Westport Playhouse, staged by Sabin Epstein, a director at ACT in San Francisco. "Michael worked with him there on What the Butler Saw, and loved him," says Rehac. "In her wonderful way, she said, 'I'm not saying you have to have him, but he's great.' I think so, too."

After the play closes, Rehac will return to Sherman's office. At least that's the plan now. But who knows? Everything has gone so swimmingly for him and Chasing Monsters that he might just be at next year's Tony Awards having a press agent position him for a photograph.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com