Where was David Singleman when John F. Kennedy was shot? Well, he was sitting in a diner. His beatnik friends were sore at him. He'd been offered partner at the family shoe store, but he'd declined. He'd been arrested during a protest, which had just ruined his chances for grad school. David was Jewish, but he was in love with Denise, an African-American waitress. That night, he planned to drop acid for the first time ...
You could call David Singleman, the lead in Interesting Times, fictional, but he's more of an alias: He stands for Jerry Starr, a longtime Pittsburgh-based teacher, writer and activist, and the work's playwright. Singleman and Starr are both from Detroit; both majored in sociology, both grew up immersed in Jewish culture and both criticized TV in its earliest days. David would like to grow up to become Jerry Starr. Interesting Times is a kind of autobiography, sounding off on race, duty, war, love, capitalism and coming-of-age. This heartfelt drama condenses much of Starr's existence into a two-hour nutshell. And it couldn't come at a more vital time.
Jerry Starr has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He has long been a friend of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, whose artistic director heard the news and decided to stage Interesting Times, come hell or high water -- or, in this case, with only three weeks' rehearsal time and no preparation.
"When I heard the news of August Wilson's death, I felt helpless," Southers writes in his program notes. "But this time there was something I could personally do."
Southers had already delayed his own play, Il Nipoti, and when he heard of Starr's diagnosis, he also cancelled auditions for the classic You Can't Take It With You, a last-minute substitute. Southers decided to cast and direct the show himself. Interesting Times features 16 characters, to be performed by 10 or so actors; but because of its long scenes and urgent production schedule, the show features no fewer than 14 actors.
The audience last Saturday night was small but attentive. Playwrights Theatre is built into a converted Downtown parking garage, and it's a scrappy space. The box office opened just 20 minutes before showtime, and was manned by one of the actors. No concessions were available, and when the show started, the noisy heater had to be shut off. The set was simple -- some scattered furniture and a coffee pot.
But among the 20-or-so patrons, nearly half looked old enough to remember, with adolescent clarity, where they were when JFK was assassinated, and they nodded knowingly. Lines were sharp and cues were crisp, and the audience laughed at the script's every gallows joke. Folks made small talk with Starr's cousin, who was visiting from San Diego. Despite the cold weather, the place felt warm. And people seemed comforted that Starr's final, confessional play, though tempered by struggle, has a happy, hopeful ending.
Interesting Times continues through Sun., Nov. 23. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or proartstickets.org.