Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Theater feature: Lake Worth's Tomé brings 'Babylon' home, then Off-Broadway

Gregg Tomé in Back to Babylon.

By Hap Erstein

Actor-writer Gregg Tomé is nothing if not persistent. For over a decade he has been writing, revising and performing his one-man show, Back to Babylon, his memory play of growing up in the Long Island town that draws tongue-in-cheek parallels to the Biblical city of the same name.

Although many of the nine characters he becomes -- including a bong-smoking stoner, a pep talk-prone football coach, a bike-riding daredevil, a student wrestler misfit and a drug dealer, among others -- are humorous, the play eventually ties them together with a tragic incident, a real-life fatal boating accident that traumatized the town.

Tomé, 46, has performed his play at the now-defunct Theatre West in Wellington, at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach, at the New York Fringe Festival, at the Boulton Center in Bayshore, Long Island, and most recently in Babylon.

In July, Tomé takes Back to Babylon off-Broadway, to the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. But before that, he will perform it twice in a local tune-up engagement at the Lake Worth Playhouse this Friday and Saturday night.

Recently, Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Hap Erstein spoke with Tomé about the evolution of his play and its future.

Erstein: When did you begin writing Back to Babylon?

Tomé: It started back in 1997 when I presented it as a reading out in L.A. It took me a year to write that version, so I guess I started in ‘96. I was in L.A., bouncing around as an actor. I saw some other people doing one-man shows, so I started writing one myself.

There were a couple of characters that I’ve always done, like the Old Man (at right), in auditions. So I started with him and he was written pretty quickly. I had a bunch of these guys -- I had Vito, I had the Old Man -- but nothing was connected.

Actually, I went to see Eric Bogosian’s show, Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll, and I said, “This is what I want to do! That’s exactly what I want to do.”

So I just started writing and then I decided, “Let me keep digging here and try to get to a story,” because anyone can just write monologues that are not connected.

Erstein: When did the lightbulb go on over your head and you saw how they could connect?

Tomé: It was only before I did it up at the Cuillo, back in 2003, that I had some revelations. I came back after the Fringe and said, “There has to be more of a through line.”

Erstein: When did you realize you had this facility for voices and accents?

Tomé: I was studying in New York with Phil Gushee, who just passed away, studying at the Meisner Studios and I just started bringing in all these characters and Phil said, “Wow, you have a knack for that. It’s something you should explore.” And I just kept going for it after that.

Erstein: Why did you move to Florida?

Tomé: Kara and I had our first child and we were in a really small apartment. I had just finished Back to Babylon at The Improv (in Los Angeles), but we needed a change of scenery and I needed to make a little bit more steady money than I had been. So I came here where my mother had a real estate business. It was a really good time to be in real estate, we did very well for a few years. And it afforded me the opportunity to do some shows.

My first time with it onstage here was at Theater West in Wellington. Then the (New York) Fringe. I got really good response at the Fringe. We thought we were going to win, because we had such good response and one of the best reviews I ever received.

Erstein: You were unable to land a production of Back to Babylon up there?

Tomé: No. There were some close calls. I had a couple of meetings with producers and some writing reps. They were very impressed, but nothing ever came from that.

So I came back down here, did more real estate, more tinkering with the show. I was really driven, because I thought if it had a little more storyline, I thought maybe it could have been picked up after the Fringe. So I went back and put some changes in and just kept going with it.

Erstein: Then you took it to the Cuillo Centre in 2005?

Tomé: Yeah, I worked at the Cuillo, (executive director) Zac Phillips there really gave me free rein to do what I wanted up in that cabaret room. The intimacy is just great and that’s where I was able to fine tune those new changes.

Erstein: Recently, you actually took the play to Babylon?

Tomé: In October, I had the chance to do it at Babylon High School, which was one of my goals since I started writing it. That meant coming full circle to actually perform it before the people who it’s based on. It was a very surreal experience, I have to say, performing in my high school auditorium, a beautiful 400-seat theater.

Erstein: Performing for some of the very people you impersonate.

Tomé: They were in the audience. If you remember that football coach I do (at left), he came. He must be 75 now.

The response was very mixed, but Coach loved it. He said, “Tomé, you do me better than I do myself.” It was probably the first time he’s ever been to theater, actually.

But there was a touchy moment. After the show, we went to the local bar, of course, and a girl came up to me, probably a couple of years younger than me. I recognized her right away. She was the sister of one of the boys who was in the boating accident. She said, “Hey, I saw the show. I didn’t really know what it was about.”

I thought that was odd, that no one warned her or anything. She said she started getting really mad during the show, but at the end she finally said, “It’s not really about my brother and this stuff happens all the time. If there’s someone who is affected by this and if there’s a story he can make out of it and do it and people enjoy, then I’m all for it and I‘m really glad I came.”

Erstein: You were born in the Bronx and your family moved to Babylon when you were 8. Was it a pretty normal place to grow up?

Tomé: I thought so. Very suburban. I mean, you look back at it now, and I don’t know if it was. There was definitely that pot culture out there, I did experience one of my friends selling pot. That popular guy Manny (at right) is a true character, the most dangerous person in the play if you really think about it, a guy selling to kids, right?

Erstein: You were 18 at the time of the boating accident, a traumatic incident for the entire town.

Tome: Absolutely. In one accident, we lost two kids. I knew them fairly well. They were my brother’s age, but back then everybody hung around with each other, they were a part of my life, in my house all the time. Just to make it worse, the next year, we lost another two kids. Two consecutive years of tragic accidents. One accident a boat hit a boat and in the other a boat hit a bridge. Tragic. Right out in the same area.

Erstein: Yet when you started writing the play, you had no idea the accident would be involved.

Tomé: Exactly. I had no idea, but going through the process I started thinking back to that, and once I clicked on it, it stuck in there and I headed towards that.

I have a job now where I travel a lot and sometimes in a hotel room, I pick up on something, I hear a little kernel out there, and you just start writing and you never know where it’s going to go.

Erstein: When the local real estate market crashed, you were already onto another career?

Tomé: I guess I have a career, or an angle towards a career if I want to pursue it. I work for a very cutting-edge, high tech wireless equipment manufacturer. It’s fascinating, and I think I use my skill, as an actor to succeed. I was plopped down into this world, not knowing a thing about wireless technology. I just started making phone calls and within three weeks I got my first sale, and they were impressed. I just kept at it.

Erstein: Is making a sales pitch like auditioning?

Tomé: Yeah, it was at first. The same kind of stress. Very hard. At the beginning, I didn’t know my lines with this job. Once you know your lines, you’re flying.

Erstein: But you’d rather the stage was your career?

Tomé: Exactly. But we do what we have to do. I’m just fortunate to have a job in this climate.

Erstein: Now you are taking your show to off-Broadway in mid-July.

Tomé: I did a performance in 2007 at the Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bayshore. The Babylon people were there. It was one town over.

Then I did for that benefit for my high school. Since then, I’ve got a following, so I want to capitalize on that.

From producer Ken Davenport‘s blog I learned that the owner of The Players Theatre down in the Village was cutting deals for people that wanted to bring in shows. It was a deal that I couldn’t refuse, so I jumped on it. I would call it a co-production, getting the theater at a very cheap rate.

Erstein: So you went searching locally for a theater to do a tune-up engagement before New York?

Tomé: Right, and of course I reached out to the Cuillo. It seemed logical, only this time I said it’s got to be on the big stage. They said “Fine.”

My last two shows I performed for 200 people and the theater I’m going into in New York seats 200. That was a question, whether I could hold that big of a space as an actor. The feedback was good, I felt good. I do love that intimacy, though.

Also the thought was this would be a fund-raiser for me to get up to New York, to make a little money from it. And I could only make so much with 50 seats.

Erstein: You had no warning that the Cuillo Centre was going to shut down for the summer?

Tomé: No, it happened very abruptly. The sad part is for all the people working there, it came out of left field, almost overnight. I just got a call from Zac. He called and told me he found out the night before that they were shutting down.

So I pretty much resigned myself to it not happening. But I was talking to a friend who still does some work down at the (Lake Worth) Playhouse, and he offered to make a call for me and they said “Hey, come on in and talk.” (Managing director) Stephanie Smith and I started talking about it, they did have that slot open and she said, “I think we can do this.”

Erstein: Don’t you have a little history with the Lake Worth Playhouse?

Tomé: I did a show there when I first came to Florida, a Lee Blessing show called Down the Road. Kara and I were literally walking down the street, saying, “Oh, wow, look at Lake Worth,” we’d just arrived, and there was a sign that said, “Auditions.” I had no idea what the Lake Worth Playhouse was. Lo and behold, I got cast in the lead as a serial killer. A very dark show, and I really enjoyed scaring the old ladies there. They were frightened to death and I had a great, great time.

Erstein: So why should we go see Back to Babylon?

Tomé: It’s a compelling story based on my experiences. The characters are both poignant and humorous. It is a stroll down suburban memory lane that I think people will find moving and entertaining. And it’s got a very energetic performer, I think we can say that.

BACK TO BABYLON, Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets: $15. Call: (561) 586-6410. Next month, at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., New York. July 10-12 and 17-19. Tickets: $15-$25. Call: (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111).

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