Scary Business

Shakespeare did it. So did Molière and Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Even Tennessee Williams took his turn on the stage, late in his career. So it shouldn't surprise knowledgeable audiences at Houston's Alley Theatre that an actor they saw twice has returned—as a playwright.

Certainly it's a natural state of affairs for Keith Reddin, who began his theatrical career as an actor and continues as one, even as he is playwright-in-residence at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. His latest play, Synergy, had its world premiere this week at the Alley, where he worked last as an actor, in Misalli-ance in 1999.

In fact, it was Reddin's stint in the George Bernard Shaw play that led to the Alley's production of Synergy. While he was playing the role of Gunner, Reddin mentioned his new script to Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd. "We went down to one of the rehearsal rooms and sat around a table and had the actors from Misalliance read the play. And Greg was very encouraging. He said, 'I like this play; it sounds really good, let's talk about doing it,' and a year and half later, they're doing it."

Reddin found the feedback he got from his fellow cast members invaluable in getting Synergy on its feet. Two months of working together had proved to be no misalliance whatsoever. Reddin felt confident in the other actors' judgment of his work. "If they said something like, 'I don't understand' or 'I'm confused about something,' I was secure that I could take in their point of view."

That wasn't the only time actors have helped Reddin the playwright. Working on his plays in rehearsal is important to him, because he knows from his own time on the stage how much an actor's viewpoint can help a playwright. "I'm not suspicious of actors asking questions. I'm not threatened by that," he said. "I'm open to change, and when we're in rehearsal, if an actor says during a scene, 'You know, I'm having trouble with this line,' I'll say, 'Well, what do you feel comfortable with? Let's try some changes,' that kind of thing."

Being an actor himself influences his playwriting in other ways, too. "I write characters that actors would want to do," Reddin confessed with a laugh. "They're all parts I'd want to play."

And what red-blooded actor wouldn't want to take a crack at playing the devil? Especially a Rat Pack, swinger-type devil, complete with Dean Martin music and attitude, who ends up running the Disney Corporation?

That's one of the parts Reddin offers actors in Synergy, which he described as a satire of "big business, corporations, cellphones, and how willing we are to sell our souls to become successful."

Mouse Trap

Reddin, who shuns technology and still writes on a typewriter, said his inspiration for the play came in the late 1990s, when Disney and ABC announced their merger, calling it a great "synergy" of their corporations. "I heard that, and it was funny and scary at the same time," he recalled. Which is exactly what he hopes Synergy will be for audiences.

"The premise is that this woman is sent to hell. She makes a deal with the devil. She says, I want to go back to Earth and if I can get you some souls, give me some more time out of hell and in life. And he says, OK, but you gotta work where I tell you. So she works at the Disney Corp., and by the end of the play she can't find any souls, because everybody at Disney has already sold their souls working for Satan."

Does his new play mean Reddin is a staunch opponent of all things Disney? Not entirely. "I like Disney products," said Reddin, who grew up in New Jersey with Uncle Walt's vision of the world. "But there are two different things. There's the Wonderful World of Disney and Disney World and Disneyland, which is this kind of family entertainment, and then there's the Disney Corp., which is a very ruthless, powerful corporation that has very severe dress codes—[where] people can get fired if they don't behave a certain way. I wanted to say there's a conflict between the kind of entertainment they present, which is sweet, happy family stuff—Mickey Mouse and all that—and the Disney Corp., which is a very scary, cutthroat business."

Reddin likened his approach in Synergy to that of film director Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove, the 1960s black comedy about nuclear war. "When you see Dr. Strangelove, you go, OK, this is a little over the top, it's a little larger than life, and it's crazy, funny, and very dark, but at the same time there's part of you that also goes, Well, it's probably not that far from what goes on in the War Room, and how close we are to crazy people pushing the button."

So when audiences see the devilish executives in Synergy hiring a former CIA mind-control expert, Reddin hopes there will be some unease in theatregoers' laughter. As the play has it, the job of the mind-control expert is to rig up the cellphones of the world to manipulate people into buying Disney products. Then the cellphones will cause brain tumors, the Disney customers will be sent to Disney HMOs, and they'll end up being taken care of from cradle to grave. "So it then becomes a satire about how these big corporations are going to try to control all aspects of life and then merge with all of them, so that it's basically one big, gigantic international corporation."

Make 'Em Think

Satire and edgy humor have never been far from Reddin's work. Produced in the mid-1980s, his first play, Life and Limb, turned its sights on the complacent, "I Like Ike" America of the 1950s. All the Rage took on guns and a sense of fear in America. Life During Wartime also dealt with violence in the U.S., focusing on the scare tactics of insurance salesman, and was made into the film The Alarmist, starring Stanley Tucci. The dysfunctional family of Brutality of Fact raised questions about religious zealotry. And in Black Snow, Reddin's dramatization of the Mikhail Bulgakov novel, the theatre itself became the target.

In all his work, Reddin makes the most of the theatrical medium and the way it can break boundaries. His characters address the audience, or skip back and forth in time. "I have characters who die and then come back in the second act and talk to people. You're not going to see that in other places. And I think that's what theatre can still be."

What some of it has become, though, saddens Reddin. "I think a lot of theatres turned into what you would watch on television. Well made stuff, but it doesn't really push the envelope or explore a lot of subjects. And it's not like I'm knocking television. I like television, and there's really good quality television to watch—good shows that raise a lot of good issues. But I mean I'd rather watch that on television. When I come to the theatre, I don't want to watch more television."

And while he thinks the future of new theatre doesn't look exactly rosy, he sees hope in the Alley's growing willingness to produce new work. "For a big regional theatre, they have a lot of money, and they have a lot of resources, and I think if you're going to continue to expand and be more ambitious, you need to do more new plays," Reddin said. This year, of the Alley's eight offerings, three plays, including his, are new works. "That's pretty good."

Reddin said he thinks producers often underestimate audiences, failing to understand that they are hungry for work that gives them something beyond mere escapism. "I don't think people should come into the theatre or movies and be lectured," he said. "But that doesn't mean you just have to do mindless entertainment."

He points out that great plays and works of art not only entertain and move audiences but make them think about what they see, as well. "You don't go to see Death of a Salesman just to forget about your life and be entertained. Certainly you're moved by it and you get involved in the characters, but then you also think about what business does to the individual, you look at how important it is to succeed in America, at how it can rip families apart, the dishonesty between father and son, and all that kind of thing. I think plays like that are going to be done all the time, but I don't think they're just purely entertaining."

Reddin hopes his own work is both entertaining and thought provoking, and he looks with respect upon a playwright like Edward Albee, who "doesn't compromise. And I think that that should be a lesson for us writers. That he just does what he wants. He doesn't say, 'Well, in order for me to be successful I've got to go for the lowest common denominator.' He says, 'I'm going to challenge audiences. I have something that I want to say.' I really respect that. I'm trying to do that in my own work." BSW