Thursday, January 7, 2010

Theater feature: For 'Millions of Miles,' fourth time might be the charm

Sally Bondi and Avi Hoffman in Millions of Miles.

By Hap Erstein

Greenacres playwright Elliott Taubenslag knows how to write roles that attract major names.

More than 20 years ago, he wrote a bittersweet romantic comedy called Millions of Miles for Kay Medford, the late character actress who originated memorable mothers in Bye Bye Birdie and Funny Girl. Although she toured in Taubenslag’s play and it was booked into a theater on Broadway, it never arrived there, for Medford began losing her personal battle with cancer.

A dark cloud has hovered over Millions of Miles since then. The Golden Girls’ Rue McClanahan went into rehearsals with it next, opposite Milo O’Shea, but she too had to withdraw over a cancer scare. The script then made its way to Debbie Reynolds, who was eager to take on the role, until her daughter Carrie Fisher started having substance abuse issues.

Burned three times, Taubenslag put the script away in a drawer. “I didn’t expect anything else to come of it,” he concedes.

Still, you can see why those woman would be drawn to Millions of Miles. It is the story of a retired businessman and widower named Walter who goes to a neighborhood bar one night and walks out with a loudmouthed, but refreshingly candid, hooker. She goes home with him and the next day moves in, much to the consternation of his grown son and daughter-in-law.

The question the play asks is should a senior have to ask his children for permission to be happy. It is a theme that is bound to strike a chord in South Florida, where Millions of Miles has resurfaced. It plays this weekend, five performances from Friday to Sunday, at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, before a hoped-for tour and perhaps another attempt at Broadway.

* * *

Taubenslag, who taught high school and coached drama for 35 years in the East Brunswick, N.J., school system, has written dozens of children’s plays. Even more lucrative has been his comic take on the teen years, How I Survived High School, which played off-Broadway in the 1980s and continues to be performed in schools to this day.

Millions of Miles, on the other hand, is aimed at adults. It stems from a news item Taubenslag came upon. “I read a small, maybe 2-inch article in the 'New York Daily News' about an 84-year old prostitute who was arrested for soliciting,” he recalls. That got his imagination into high gear. He lowered her age to accommodate his various stars, but it is still the story of a, um, seasoned prostitute finding romance late in life.

Yes, Taubenslag sheepishly admits, he did do research for the play. “I went to New York, found a prostitute and hired her, but just to talk, just to tell me about her life and her work,” he says. And, hey, presumably he could write it off as a business expense.

Anyway, fast forward to 2007, when the Culture Club in Taubenslag’s housing community needed a program to entertain its members. Taubenslag offered to produce a reading of Millions of Miles, never expecting it would lead to anything. “There was no money involved,” he shrugs. “It was just to do it to help out the organization.”

In the audience was another resident, Bob Goldman, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, but a complete rookie when it comes to producing a play. He and his wife, Shelly Zandel, had just returned to South Florida for the season and attended the reading out of idle curiosity.

“We were retired, but I decided to come out of retirement for the fourth time” and produce Millions of Miles, Goldman says. “It made no sense, but what the heck.”

They met with Florence Seidelman, producer of the independent comedy The Boynton Beach Club, directed by her daughter, filmmaker Susan Seidelman. Florence had no theater experience either, but Goldman and Zandel persuaded her to become a co-producer with them.

Next stop the Delray Beach Playhouse, to ask artistic director Randy del Lago his opinion of the play. He immediately added it to his season. Soon afterwards, Seidelman used her connections to interest Tony Award winner Len Cariou -- a Boynton Beach Club alum -- to do a reading of Millions of Miles at the Caldwell Theatre.

That reportedly went well, but the Caldwell passed on a full production, so Goldman, Zandel and Seidelman -- collectively known as Palm Tree Productions -- are producing it independently.

“We’re neophytes,” says Goldman. “There’s a lot of on-the-job training and then there’s Google. We’re still learning and loving it.”

They approached Avi Hoffman, whose New Vista Theatre Company was closing, and showed him a script. He read it, liked it, but considered himself a little old to play the son. In his early 50s, he is also too young for Walter, but that’s what he is playing, as well as directing the production.

“This is a deceptively interesting play,” he says. “It seems to be going in one way, but it’s got a few surprises. It’s a comedy, but it also has its serious side. Audiences here are going to like it a lot, and yes, I can see it going to Broadway."

The cast here includes Sally Bondi as the hooker, Michael McKeever as Walter’s son and Stephanie Simon as the daughter-in-law. The hunt is already on for a few nationally known names for the tour and for Broadway.

"We have million of miles to go,” offers Goldman. “I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, but we know we’re talking millions” of dollars to open in New York. “We are stubborn and persistent, sometimes to the point of making mistakes. But we learn.”

MILLIONS OF MILES. Crest Theatre, Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Fri., Jan. 8 - Sun., Jan. 10. Tickets: $35. Call: (561) 243-7922, ext. 1.

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