Photo credit Bonnie Rosenstock
Playwright John Reoli, whose “One Seat in the Shade” debuts in the Fringe Festival this month, stands in front of Veselka, where he works as a waiter.
Sol mates in southern Spain
Fringe Fest shines light on local playwright
One Seat in the Shade
By John Reoli
Directed by Bruce Ornstein
15 Vandam Street
Mon., 8/18 at 9:30 pm; Wed., 8/20 at 5:15 pm; Sat., 8/23 at 2 pm.
Fringe Festival, August 8 to 24
By Bonnie Rosenstock
John Reoli didn’t start out to write a gay play or a love story. He says it just turned out that way. “To me, that’s part of the adventure of writing,” explained the actor/playwright. “It’s like being on a ship. You’re the one not driving it. You don’t necessarily know where you’re going.”
The ship metaphor is apt, given Reoli’s unusual background (but we’ll get to that later). In his 90-minute play, “One Seat in the Shade,” which will debut as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, Randall (Cash Tilton) and Scott (Dan Williams) are unhappily vacationing in Cádiz, Spain. They are in their mid-50s and have been together for 27 “nice, long years,” said Randall sarcastically. Their relationship has run aground. With a knock on their hotel door, Jeff (Austin Mitchell), 22, beautiful, abandoned and of dubious background, walks into their lives and becomes the catalyst that spins it out of control. “They get to see the dynamic played out. The three need each other for different reasons, but none of them can control what is happening,” Reoli said.
Reoli covers a lot of emotional ground in the play. There is the generational conflict between younger and older gay men’s points of view and perceptions. It also delves into the discord over money. Scott is the breadwinner and Randall is the homemaker. “They have a very traditional relationship, which could easily be husband and wife,” said Reoli. “In contrast, Jeff and his lover [Bradley] are both loaded, so money isn’t an issue. I find it odd when writers don’t write about money. Even with people who have it, it’s a constant topic. It has nothing to do with being gay or straight. It has to do with living in a capitalist country.”
The constant jockeying of position and sexual tension between Randall and Jeff and Scott and Jeff is on the verge of exploding, and it finally does. The claustrophobic sweltering un-air-conditioned room, where all the action takes place, heightens the tension. “It finally rips open their relationship, especially at the beginning of the second act. Lines have been crossed that can’t be undone,” said Reoli.
In the second act, enter Jeff’s lover Bradley, played by Reoli, who is 44. He didn’t want to play the role, but his director Bruce Ornstein, convinced him to do it. “I mulled it over for twenty-four hours, and thought, why pass up the opportunity to be in your own play in New York City. If it’s good enough for Sam Shepard, it’s good enough for me,” he declared.
In March 2007, Reoli moved to the East Village from Pittsburgh, where he felt he had done everything theatrically that he could. He had been in shows, done a feature film, had two plays produced, produced a full-length play of his own and had a collection of poetry published. Along the way, he had also owned a small art gallery/sandwich shop. “I would have stayed at one level if I had stayed there,” he said.
He is a Craigslist success story. He found Ornstein, his private acting teacher (and the play’s director), an apartment with a roommate on East Seventh Street on it, and even his waiter job at Veselka on Second Avenue and East Ninth Street, using a computer terminal at the Tompkins Square Library. “When I was hired by Veselka, I had $60 in the bank,” he related.
“The East Village is very much like the neighborhood I left. When I moved here, I had a beard and long hair. I thought anybody who hires me has got to be cool.” [He is now clean shaven with short, trim salt and pepper flecked hair and still works his shifts at Veselka.]
Reoli is originally from Star Junction, a southwestern Pennsylvania coal mining “patch town,” which he explained is a patch of houses built in a valley to tap a coal seam. It was built in the late 1800s by Henry Clay Frick’s coal company. When the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, this area was the most depressed county in the nation. Reoli was 19, living at home and his father had passed away three years before, so he joined the navy, was taught Russian and became a linguist and cryptologist. He served for five years during the Reagan era.
“I was under ‘don’t period’ before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ But being gay in the navy was pretty easy,” he admitted. “Because we had high security clearances, we were constantly being watched. I couldn’t go to a local gay bar if there was one. It was Pre-Internet. It was easier to date women to throw them off the scent. But at the time I was more concerned with the adventure aspect than the gay aspect. That’s one component of my life, not my entire life. I don’t make decisions based on being a gay man every day.”
Reoli was stationed in Rota in southern Spain for two years and had been to Cádiz, so he drew on his familiarity with the country for the play’s setting. “Then the bullfight came out unconsciously,” he said. “I could see their conflict building, the metaphor of life and death behind them outside of a bullring.”
Reoli feels his play will resonate with people of all sexual persuasions. Because straight people have typically been in longer-term relationships, they will be able to connect to the problems inherent in them. He pointed out, however, that according to studies, unlike heterosexuals, gay men in particular resolve conflicts around sex very quickly. “The open discussion of sexuality and the permutations of it may occur in heterosexual relationships, but I doubt it,” he asserted.
“The play is funny and not didactic,” he added. “Nobody is giving a sermon about sexuality. The characters are greatly flawed, but that’s where all the fun is. If they were perfect, no one would want to look at them.”