Volume 18 • Issue 25 | November 4 - 10, 2005

Theater

WAR IN PARAMUS
By Barbara Dana
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Closes November 6
Abingdon Theatre
312 West 36th Street
(212) 868-2055

Photo by Kim T. Sharp

Lisa McCormick and Jeremy Beiler in “War in Paramus,” written by actress and children’s book author Barbara Dana.

For one playwright, it’s all in the family

By Jerry Tallmer

Nobody listens to 15-year-old Thelma—not her mother, who’s all wrapped up in the world-shattering question of whether the den of their house in Paramus, New Jersey, should be painted beige; not Thelma’s vague-minded father, whose main focus in life is the boats he builds as a hobby; and certainly not Thelma’s 22-year-old sister Jennifer, the slim, beautiful, high-strung one who’s engaged to be married at the Ethical Culture to a really nice, really boring law student named Kevin.

Nobody even listens when Thelma comes out of her sulk and her locked room to announce that she and her friend Harry, the charged-up kid with the knife, are going out to rob Jiffy Donut. No one still listens the next day, at least at first, when bedraggled, unkempt Thelma shouts in her non-listening father’s face: “I SET FIRE TO THE ETHICAL CULTURE!”

Just how closely are young Thelma’s actions modeled on the real-life histrionics of playwright Barbara Dana?

“Well, I never burned down a building,” said Ms. Dana in the Green Room of the Abingdon Theatre, where her “War in Paramus” can be seen through this weekend.

But you may have wanted to, at age 15?

“I did feel different from other people. Angry, dissatisfied, rebellious. I don’t have a sister, but there are actually two parts of me, the active, rebellious, strong one, and the other part that wants to be accommodating.

“I started working in the theater at 16, and it helped me a lot. Thelma didn’t have anything like that. I turned up the heat by putting Thelma and her family in suburban New Jersey rather than in a theater family in New York City,”

That is to say, in Barbara Dana’s immediate family. She herself was born in Greenwich Village but grew up on Long Island.
“My parents met as students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. My mother, typical of the time, gave up her acting when she got married. My father, Richard Dana, couldn’t make a living as an actor so he turned to radio writing and directing.”

Their daughter’s own career includes memorable performances back in the ’60s in “Enter Laughing,” “Where’s Daddy?,” “Room Service,” “Eh?,” and the Sheridan Square off-Broadway production of Arthur Laurents’s “A Clearing in the Woods.”

It was Barbara Dana, actress, who in 1970 turned out a first draft of her first (and, so far, only) play, this one. “My impetus for it was to create a part for myself – Thelma, the rebellious 15-year-old daughter. I was in my late 20s, but I looked very young. It needed work, but rather than work on it I wrote a novel on the same theme, ‘Crazy Eights.’ ”

She has in fact had an impressive career as a writer of children’s novels and “young adult” novels, among them “Zucchini,” about the friendship between a 12-year-old boy and a black ferret that escapes from the Bronx Zoo; “Young Joan,” about Joan of Arc; and “Necessary Parties,” about a 14-year-old boy who disapproves of his parents’ divorce and hires a lawyer-cum-garage-mechanic to try to repair the damage.

“It was published [like several of her books] by HarperCollins, and then I co-wrote the script from it for a PBS 1988/89 special. Wrote it with my ex-husband, actually.”

Her ex-husband is the actor Alan Arkin, and together they are the parents of “three acting sons and three acting daughters-in-law”—Adam, and wife Phyllis Lyons; Matthew, and wife Pamela Newkirk Arkin; and Anthony, “my baby”—he’s 37—and wife Amelia Campbell.

Some eight years ago, when Barbara Dana was moving from Stamford, Connecticut, to South Salem, New York, she discovered that long-ago draft of “War in Paramus” in an old cardboard box.

“I thought: Oh, perhaps I should work on this, and I asked my sons and their wives and a couple of other actors to take part in a reading of it.”

Back in 1970 the play had originally been written for Elizabeth Wilson to play Thelma’s mother, Sam Groom to play her father, and Austin Pendleton to play Kevin—

The guy that big sister Jennifer’s engaged to? Whom Thelma hates?

“Exactly right. Austin and I had been in a couple of things together. And now he’s directing this.”

One of the invited actresses at that family-circle reading had been Kate Bushmann, who subsequently brought the script to the attention of the Abingdon Theatre Company on West 36th Street, while Sam Groom took it to the H.B. Studio on Bank Street, where it was staged by Billy Carden.

“In that one [Ms. Dana’s son] Anthony played Kevin, while in this one [her other son] Matthew plays the father. And Kate Bushmann plays the mother.” Rounding out the present cast: Jeremy Beiler as Kevin, Lisa McCormick as Jennifer, Gene Gallerano as Harry, the teenager with a knife, David McElfresh as another of Thelma’s young pals, and Anne Letscher as Thelma herself.

As written and rewritten and rewritten by a Thelma come full circle, 35 years later.


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