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At 78, a long-anticipated theatrical debut (with thanks to Edward Albee)

I’m 78 years old, and I’m a budding, soon-to-be-produced playwright. To explain how this happened, we need to go back 16 years.

“I’d like to think,” Edward Albee said to me, “that maybe I’ve made people think about things a little bit.”

It was the fall of 2005 and we were sitting in his TriBeCa loft, surrounded by the modern art and African sculptures he loved to collect. I was interviewing Albee for a series of monthly articles I was writing for Playbill Magazine and called “A Life in the Theater, ” focusing on people — playwrights, actors, directors, producers, designers, stage managers, ushers — who had devoted their careers to the stage.

Why, Albee asked me, would anybody want “to sit down in the theater and have nothing happen to them?”

“I don’t understand why they’d want to go and have a safe, pleasant experience which they can forget about as soon as they leave the theater,” he said. “What a waste of this powerful thing called life.”

Every time “I look at a painting, or listen to a string quartet, or read a book or a play, I want something useful and vital to happen to me,” he said. “I want to have my values questioned. I want to be able to think freshly about things. That’s the function of art.”

Mervyn Rothstein

First-time playwright: Mervyn Rothstein makes his theatrical debut with ‘American Lives.’ Courtesy of Mervyn Rothstein

I was 62 years old when I spoke with Albee — he was 77. So I’m one year older now than he was then, and two one-act plays I’ve written are going to be presented March 3 at 7 p.m in a one-night benefit performance for the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, a 99-year-old nondenominational charitable organization that offers financial and food aid to performers in need.

While I was writing the plays, I often thought of what Albee said to me that warm October day. I wanted to write the kind of plays he would have considered worthwhile.

I have not spent my life in the theater. I’m a journalist. But I spent a good portion of my career — beginning when I was 20 years old — writing about the theater.

I’ve loved the stage since I was a teenager, when I would listen to the LPs of “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady” and “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel” over and over again. When I was 20, still in college, working summers for The New York Post, I interviewed Sydney Chaplin, who co-starred with Barbra Streisand in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl.”

More than 20 years later, I became the theater editor of The New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section. And then I was The Times’ chief theater reporter. And then I wrote for Playbill Magazine for 29 years. Now I’m writing about theater for The Forward.

One day in the spring of 2021, mid-pandemic, locked down or hunkered down, I said to myself, you’ve written about theater over more than a half-century, but you’ve never written a play. You’ve always wanted to, thought about it often, began several times, quickly stopped. You certainly have the time now, so why not try again?

So I did.

My plays are about decisions — the decisions we make that affect our lives, and the lives of others. During the pandemic, I would read every day about the terrible decisions hospital doctors and nurses had to make. And at the same time, I would continue to read about the police killing Black men and women in our racially troubled country.

In the first play, “The Middle of the Journey,” a doctor jogging in the woods near his country home encounters a mysterious man and suddenly faces a most unusual life or death decision. As I wrote, I pondered what my own decision would be. And I hope the audience members will weigh the choices they would make.

In the second play, “Back in the U.S.A.,” a 16-year-old boy in 1950s Brooklyn encounters the brutality of racial hatred. And agonizes about the unintended consequences of a decision he made. The drama is set in the year 2000 in Paris and Atlanta, and in the late 1950s on the streets of my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood, at my old high school — and in the apartment building where I spent the first 16 years of my life. Did it really happen? No. But it could have.

My plays have no simple message. I don’t believe in messages. I hope my works are more complex than that. But I must admit that as I was writing I thought, as a Jew, of the Talmud — and how rare it has been in our world’s history, both ancient and modern, for humans to abide by a famous quote from the writings of Hillel the Elder:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is interpretation.”

I’m eagerly anticipating the evening. Just last month I mentioned to Harvey Fierstein how thrilling this all was. And he said he was so happy for me that I would be experiencing for the first time the excitement of hearing the words I had put down on paper come to life, spoken aloud by actors.

I hope that we will raise money for the Guild, and that the audience will be moved by what they see, that they will “think about things a little bit,” both while they’re in the theater and after they leave.

The staged reading of Mervyn Rothstein’s “American Lives,” directed by Tyrone Henderson will be presented March 3 at 7 p.m in a one-night benefit performance for the Episcopal Actors’ Guild at the Guild’s theater, at 1 East 29th Street. All proceeds from ticket sales will go to support the Guild’s charitable work. The cast of the Equity Approved Showcase production includes Candyce Adkins, Jason Babinsky, Yvette Ganier, Ian Hersey, Wayne Maugans and Jasmine Rush. Tickets are available here.

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