Detours on the path to enlightenment


By Jerry Tallmer

Munishree is a guru with a difference. As he spreads flowers and incense around the religious ruin over which he presides, his cell phone rings. When three exhausted travelers arrive at this holy spot in India having journeyed 10,000 miles around the world in search of spiritual solace, he hands them a numbered ticket, as in a deli. “Come up when I call your number,” he says. “Then I punch your ticket. Don’t lose ticket. Lose ticket, you be sorry. Come halfway around the world and then lose ticket?”

He also does card tricks — “Take a card, any card” — and scatters the deck for 52 pick up. He laughs a lot and talks of his girlfriend: “Skin like baby’s bottom.” Then he brings forth a credit card device. “Can use American Express or Visa. No Master Card.”

But as a dark cloud approaches from the distance, this play — “Three Travelers” by Richard Abrons — darkens too. Its three travelers are Travis Beesley, a hard-headed hot shot American money man who is running away from himself; his uptight wife Mavis who has longings she’s never dared face; and their close friend Lydia, a cool British beauty who now lives in New York and has a hidden agenda of her own.

Bit by bit, as the play progresses — through February 17 at St. Clement’s on W. 46th Street — these three, guided by the skillful scalpel of Guru Muni (as Travis calls him), strip the hide off one another with a ferocity evocative or Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” There are obvious parallels with Jean-Paul Sartre’s hell-as-a-dingy-hotel -room for the three condemned souls of “No Exit.” Except that playwright Abrons’ triumvirate are maybe not condemned. “There’s no drama in disbelieving,” he said one day last week, “But there is drama in believing.”

Almost as an aside, as he sends two of those three back home to New York, Munisree makes a referral: “I have guru friend, Lexington Avenue and 86th Street. He good. Very very good.” Well, fasten your seat belts.

Richard Abrons, a product of New Rochelle, the Riverdale School, Andover Academy, Yale University, Columbia Business School, and Wall Street; co-founder and executive of First Manhattan Money Management; short story writer and playwright, once went to a guru himself.

“His name was Munishree as in the play — I’m lazy on such things — and he held forth in a second floor loft between Park and Lexington on 86th Street. He meditated and lectured. This was 25 or 30 years ago. There was a time when people meditated, so I did that for a while. Then I stopped going to him, and stopped thinking he was a particularily good guy. But this play — written some 10 years ago — started with Muni.”

What led you to a guru?

“I was seeking … seeking to gravitate to a higher plane.”

Son of Louis and Ann Abrons, Richard Abrons is also the president of the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, one of the chief beneficiaries of which has long been the Henry Street Settlement, founded by Lillian Ward in 1895. And the Henry Street Settlement was long the home of the multiracial New Federal Theater, founded by Woodie King, Jr., in 1970. “What changed my life entirely,” says the truck driver’s son who was born in Choctaw County, Alabama, and brought up in Detriot, “Was a movie I saw when I was a kid of 17 or 18 — ‘The Defiant Ones,’ with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It was when Woodie was browsing in a North Hampton, Massachusetts bookstore some few years ago that he came across a collection called “Every Day A Visitor and Other Stories” by Richard Abrons. “His brother Herbert was on the board of directors of the Abrons foundation but I’d never known Richard. The book said he also wrote plays.”

This is the fourth play by Richard Abrons that has been produced by Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theater. It is directed by Jay Broad and is performed by Stephen Schnetzer as Traqvis, Julia Lightfoot Clarke as Mavis, Kathleen McNeeny as Lydia, and Ken Maharaj as the guru.

Woodie King, Jr., who among other things teaches theater history at Sarah Lawrence, is now himself directing “The Odyessy” in an adaptation by Nobel Laureate Derek Walrot for a February 29th opening at SUNY Purchase.

The New Federal Theater has to date produced some 225 works. “Three Travelers” is one of them.

“Three Travelers” by Richard Abrons. Directred by Jay Broad. A New Federal Theater presentation at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, (212) 279-4200.