NEW YORK – It’s every playwright’s biggest dream and worst nightmare, all wrapped into one: A staged reading for “industry insiders” in the theater capital of the universe.
On Tuesday afternoon in the Public Theatre’s Joe’s Pub, a popular proving ground for New York-bound plays and musicals, it was Hamburg playwright Taylor Doherty’s turn to face one of the toughest audiences in the business with staged readings of his interactive screwball comedy “The Mystery of the Silver Chalice.”
And while the industry reception was a bit icy at first, it warmed up to a torrent of laughter as the crowd recognized the production’s unique appeal: That audience members can control the plot of the show via remote control.
The readings on Tuesday, one for theater industry movers and shakers and another for the general public, were New York’s first taste of the show in advance of a major production set for the summer in a New York venue producers plan to announce soon.
And it was the first small taste of big-market success for Doherty, the founder and artistic director of Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, who two years ago wasn’t even sure he could sell the other members of his company on his idea – let alone the deep-pocketed investors who are now backing the show.
During a break between the readings, a visibly on-edge Doherty called the experience “surreal and overwhelming,” adding that he never imagined when he pitched the idea to his theater company that he’d end up displaying his work for an audience of Broadway-connected movers and shakers.
It was a surreal and proud moment as well for outgoing Shea’s President and CEO Anthony Conte, who made the trip to support a show he helped to foster and produce at the eclectic 710 Main Theatre. For Conte, the show is evidence that his vision for local companies to use the former Studio Arena Theatre as a place to experiment and expand their craft and their audience is working.
“Taylor has been right on board right from day one,” Conte said. “To see it down here, I have to say I had nothing to do with the creative part of it, but I have a lot of pride in it.”
The one-act play, which follows a romantically challenged young man as he stumbles his way through a hapless first date, was inspired by the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books that were popular in the ’80s and ’90s. Infused with Doherty’s snarky and often absurdist commentary on the culture of Buffalo and its theater community, the show combines concepts borrowed from TV’s “The Dating Game” with heavy doses of audience-driven schadenfreude, Johnny Knoxville-style.
It was optioned last year for a New York production or tour by Tilted Windmills Theatricals, a consortium of producers that has had its hands in many New York hits on Broadway and off, including “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Marriage,” “American Idiot” and “Clybourne Park,” along with more downmarket fare like “Popesical” and “Chick Flick the Musical.”
David Carpenter, a managing partner at Tilted Windmills, said he was pleased with the way the 4 p.m. reading for theater industry members went. His gauge was how sympathetic audiences were to the lead character, who took a beating in the first act but eventually convinced audience members to pick less embarrassing plot options.
“Industry crowds are notoriously reserved, and I think that the brilliance of it really was able to shine through and people really were able to connect,” he said. “Because you saw that they weren’t punishing him, they were actually trying to give him a good date.”
Carpenter said he and his partners snagged the show because it fit into their business model of uncovering “things that nobody else is doing.”
“This is that,” he said. “Nothing else exists like this.”
The mood in the room during the industry reading started off a bit icy but picked up momentum once audience members realized the power they had over the narrative. Throughout the story, which is self-consciously lowbrow and paper-thin even while punctuated with plenty of droll cultural references, audiences can vote on seemingly inane decisions that have outsize consequences.
At Tuesday’s reading, they voted to put the main character (played by original cast member and former Buffalonian John Kaczorowski) in an absurd motorcycle getup heavy on the leather, to force him to impersonate Donald Trump by wearing a band of fake armpit hair on his head and to dance like some combination of Elaine from “Seinfeld” and the “What Is Love” dancers from “Saturday Night Live.”
With each decision, the crowd loosened up a bit more. By the end, they seem to have bought in completely.
Also in attendance to offer support at the industry reading was the Buffalo-based film and stage actor and director Stephen McKinley Henderson, a longtime supporter of Doherty and his company.
“It’s life-affirming to see someone who holds onto their dream” being able to realize it in a venue like the Public Theatre, Henderson said, adding that while he’d be happy to see Doherty have a reading anywhere, the fact that it’s happening at the Public carries a special meaning.
Kathleen Golde, a Buffalo Laboratory Theatre veteran who worked with Doherty on the original piece, echoed Henderson’s thoughts.
“It’s wonderful to see someone that you’ve known so long and so closely and love so well be in a space where people can see his work and grow it,” she said. “It is wonderful to bear witness to his work as it comes into bloom.”