Austin Pendleton directs McNally play at new Tribeca venue


By Sharon Hartwick

A new Off-Off Broadway venture is coming to Tribeca. Mary’s Space, a coffee bar opening this week on Hudson Street, plans to double as a theater.

Owner Mary Parvin decided to share her space with ‘CruslimFox,’ a young theater company. The theater group was founded by Haskell King, 27, a transplanted Oklahoman, now living in Harlem. His first production promises to be a memorable one.

Directed by Austin Pendleton, Terrence McNally’s “Sweet Eros,” explores dependency and love from the perspective of an alienated young man. More explicitly, ‘the young man,’ the lead character (played by King) abducts ‘the girl’ (Veronica Bero) and is keeping her captive in his house in the country.

“I like McNally’s work and this play is so original,” said Pendleton at a recent rehearsal.

Nominated for a Tony for “Little Foxes,” Pendleton has directed over 70 plays and musicals over a 30-year career, on Broadway and off, and written three plays of his own.

The unassuming director is just as comfortable in the spotlight. A successful theater and film actor, he’s taken on many diverse roles, including parts in “My Cousin Vinny,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and most recently as the voice of the “hypochondriac fish” in “Finding Nemo.”

Pendleton said McNally’s plays are often about ordinary people trying to find ways to reach out to others. Not so “Sweet Eros.”

“It kind of stands alone…He’s written so many plays, but this is about the most pathological behavior of any of his plays I know. The other plays are about normal people taking extreme measures — this is about someone who is not so normal taking extreme measures,” said Pendleton.

“I’ve never seen a play where somebody tries to reach out to somebody in this way — and then traces the consequences. I wonder how often anyone has ever imagined doing what Haskell’s character does in this play.”

What he does is abduct the young woman and then while she is tied up tries to convince her to have a romantic relationship with him.

McNally, a prolific playwright, has won four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. Award-winning works include “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune,” which was also made into a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Master Class.”

But some of his plays have courted controversy. The Manhattan Theater Club almost refused to produce his play, “Corpus Christi,” after considerable outcry from religious groups which considered the subject matter offensive. The theater eventually relented and produced the play.

“Sweet Eros” written in 1967, was initially produced on Broadway in 1968 with Robert Drivas and Sally Kirkland.

King said the play is as timely today as in the ‘60s and is looking forward to the audience’s response to the provocative storyline.

“I’m interested in seeing the reactions of people. I can assure you it will open up a dialogue,” said King, who said that, while his character exhibits bizarre behavior, it nonetheless raises issues about control and free will that are relevant to many relationships.

“It raises more questions than it answers. That’s true of all really great plays,” added Pendleton.

The director said creating a little unrest with the audience can only enhance the experience.

“You like to stir up — to move people around, get them upset, angry. You also like to give them pleasure,” he said. “It’s just like the characters in a Terrence McNally play. You want a response from somebody.”

King took the name “CruslimFox,” from a nickname his grandmother gave him. King grew up in a farming community in southeastern Oklahoma where many residents were Choctaw Indian, including another grandmother.

There will be a “talk-back” with the audience after the show, which will have some nudity. Audience members can speak directly to the actors, director and producer.

“It’s a great way for people to tell what they’re feeling viscerally about the play and share their thoughts with others,” said King, adding: “This is entertainment.”

King studied acting in Oklahoma and graduated from the Playwrights’ Horizon program at New York University in 1999. He met Pendleton two years later while taking acting lessons at HB Studios.

He has starred in off-Broadway productions, including “The Ball of Roses,” “Baby Steps” and “Greater Than Magellan.” And he landed the lead role in “The Pagans,” a teen horror flick, which premieres at the Hamptons Film Festival later this month.

Bero, who plays the role of the abductee, has been seen in Off Broadway productions over the past seven years, including “The A Train Plays” and “Kiwi Dreams and Other Erotic Fantasies.” She just finished a two-week run in a new comedy, “Chekhov’s Rifle.” She also starred in the film “Atlantic City Serenade.”

Regardless of how the audience responds to “Sweet Eros,” the theater group is already thinking ahead. They plan to stage bi-monthly productions at Mary’s Space and at the top of their wish list is Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain.”

Pendleton and King have rehearsed it on and off over the last year and said they could put it on with only a few weeks notice. However Greenberg, whose current Broadway show, “Take Me Out,” is a big hit, would first have to give his blessing. The group intends to bring many talented actors and playwrights, from the known to the undiscovered, to Tribeca.

“We want to bring work that can be done inexpensively but solid work by dedicated artists. We’re open to collaborating with new playwrights and established ones. That’s the hope at Mary’s Space,” said King.

“We want to create a long-standing relationship,” he said.

A new neighborhood theater is born. May the applause follow.