It's just four days until the premier of Bohemia West and the cast and crew, assembled at black box theater 95 Empire in downtown Providence, are working out some final details.
Director Sarah Reiter is deciding how long a pair of shoes, kicked off during a particular scene, should remain on stage. Two actors — a redhead and another in a brown beret — are working out an on-stage spat over beret's manhood. And a pair of actresses who come on stage singing "We are the female, the female beatniks" are in close consultation with the guitarist.
Based on what I saw, it's not clear that any amount of fine-tuning will win this play a Tony. The dialogue — a little stilted, a little dated, a little juvenile — sounds like it was written by a teenager in 1964.
And it was.
But one scene, pitting a young man and a young woman in a wrestling match that ends with an awkward kiss, provides a tantalizing glimpse at where the playwright, the late Andy Kaufman, would eventually land.
Before he created the obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton, before he played the sweet and quirky mechanic Latka Gravas on Taxi, before he staged his world Inter-Gender Wrestling matches — a cash prize for any woman who could pin him — Kaufman wrote Bohemia West during his Long Island youth.
The musical, a meditation on gender equality and youthful sexuality, was published a dozen years ago in a compilation of Kaufman's writings titled GOD . . . and other plays.
Director Reiter got her hands on the book shortly after it hit the market. And in 2004, she moved to Providence to perform a year of service through the Americorps program at 95 Empire's predecessor, the Perishable Theatre.
She stuck around afterward, stayed involved in local theater, came out of her shell a bit. And she grew increasingly interested in staging Bohemia West, which, as far as she could tell, had never been staged before.
About three years ago, she organized a reading at her place on Sprague Street, off of Elmwood Avenue. And at one point, she pitched it to the artistic director at the Perishable. Then, in early May, Reiter won a residence at 95 Empire and saw her opportunity.
But when she set about getting permission to stage the play, she ran into some trouble; the publisher of GOD was no longer in business. Then, a break.
"I was looking around and saw a legal document with an address," she says. "I Googled that and we found a phone number and I called it." A man answered. "I said, 'I'm trying to get in touch with the Andy Kaufman Memorial Trust.' And he said, 'Well, you're speaking to him.' And I said, 'I'm interested in doing a play.' 'Well, I don't know who else's permission you need, this is Andy's father.' "
Reiter says she also got the blessing of Andy's brother Michael and Al Parinello, an old Kaufman friend. Both had written wrote forwards to GOD.
All that squared away, she enlisted composer Nicole Cooney to develop the score and pulled a dozen friends and theater contacts — a geologist, an innkeeper, and an improv comedian, among others — into the cast.