Sharks & Saints

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Advice to playwrights: Never get to be too good at your day job.

Advice to playwrights: Never get to be too good at your day job.

In 1969, Thomas McCormack was sitting in what a man named Red Barber (not to mention another man named James Thurber) used to call the Catbird Seat. McCormack had just had a play of his, American Roulette — "a quasi-Ionesco one-act piece about a black guy who has to go through a degrading interview at a very WASPy place" — snatched up and produced Off-Broadway by the Albee-Barr Playwrights' Unit. He had also just had an employment interview of his own at the "tiny, sick-unto-dying" St. Martin's Press.

Thirty-seven-year-old Tom McCormack, fresh from ten knockout years as a creative editor at Doubleday and elsewhere, had been given reason to believe by the St. Martin's president and CEO "that if I didn't break all the eggs, in three years I'd inherit his job. 'I can only give you 9-to-5 because I'm a playwright,' I told him. The next day, he, the CEO, came down with an ulcer. I fell into the job — or it fell on me." And playwriting fell by the wayside for the next 28 years while CEO and hands-on editor McCormack was building St. Martin's into a publishing powerhouse.

The publishing house in Endpapers, the witty, intelligent play by Thomas McCormack at the Variety Arts Theatre, is nothing like St. Martin's. It's more like family-owned Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or, in the old days, Charles Scribner's Sons. And the two leading editors in Endpapers, master manipulator Ted (Tim Hopper) and thoughtful, high-principled Griff (Bruce McCarty), competitors for the post of CEO, are, says the playwright, entirely fictitious — "in fact every character in the play is totally made up except one, Grover (Neil Vipond), the older guy, who is based on an editor I had when I was new at Doubleday. He'd written two novels before he became an editor-in-chief, and then had stopped."

McCormack himself stops, telling this; then, very Boston Irish: "He could have been a contendahhh." Contender McCormack came back to Endpapers, a work that had been first-drafted in 1969 and then "thrown in the freezer," when, in the 1990's, he "suddenly started scribbling again on two new, what you might call 'theatrically adventurous' things. But then I thought I'd better do something recognizable. I went to an agent, who said: 'Why not something about publishing?'"

Feet up on a marble-topped table in his and his wife Sandra's huge old Central Park West apartment, McCormack emits a cackle even more stage-Irish as he reenacts replying to the agent: "Ha ha! Here!"

The version of Endpapers he handed the agent was a theatrical monster: 19 characters, 137 pages, 30,000 words. The work directed by Pamela Berlin at Variety Arts much more succinctly underscores pragmatist Ted's point that "saints make lousy CEOs" — but, though Ted hasn't a clue, so do the really bad guys. "I've seen it again and again, people so f---ing sharkish, they all think they have to be George Pattons."

Tom McCormack, the playwright who came in from the cold, doesn't have to worry about sharks or saints anymore. He just has to keep writing.

—By Jerry Tallmer

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