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Stage Preview: Bill C. Davis has been creating character-driven plays right along

Between 'Sex' and 'Appeal'

Friday, July 20, 2001

By Christopher rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Knowing Bill C. Davis only as the author of "Mass Appeal," the hugely successful 1980s play about an older and younger priest, and hearing that he was working on another two-character piece, it was easy to assume that two-handers were his thing.

Bill C. Davis says he doesn't worry whether or not his play will be a success: "I write a play and if it hits, it hits. It's hard to think of a marketplace. Who can predict that thing in the air that will be right for everyone's attention?" (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Not so. "The Sex King," which gets a professional staged reading this weekend at CMU, is his first two-hander since "Mass Appeal." In that time, he's had a half-dozen other plays produced.

Personal assumptions can be wrong, too. The author of a big hit play 20 years ago should be advanced in years, but the smiling, well-muscled, 40-something fellow in the Purnell Center lobby looks more like a jock than a playwright. (I guess he put on a different game face for the photographer.)

"I'm just a working playwright," he says. He happened to write a hit play when he was 25, and the royalties and movie sale gave him a continuing cushion. But he doesn't seem to suffer from that "second act" syndrome which is supposed to make life difficult for writers who are successful young.

"I write a play and if it hits, it hits. It's hard to think of a marketplace. Who can predict that thing in the air that will be right for everyone's attention?"

Though he wrote the screenplay for "Mass Appeal" and for "The Secret Path," a 1998 movie for CBS-TV, and he's working on a screenplay of his most recent play, "Avow," for Paramount and Showtime, Davis doesn't do much film or TV. He's a playwright.


WHERE: Staged reading by Carnegie Mellon Summer New Plays Project at Rauh Theater, Purnell Center, CMU campus, Oakland.

WHEN: 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. tomorrow.

TICKETS: $5; 412-268-2407.

As such, he clearly has something that attracts actors. In different productions, his "Dancing in the End Zone" has starred Elaine Stritch, Pat Carroll and Lois Nettleton. His "Wrestlers" starred Mark Harmon; "Spine," Meredith Baxter; and the first reading of "The Sex King," Judd Hirsch.

Davis grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He went to Marist College, which didn't have a theater department but encouraged him to write plays. Actor/director Austin Pendleton, then directing Milan Stitt's "The Runner Stumbles," recommended the young grad to Stitt, who had him join his playwrights' group.

"That was all about structure," Davis says. "I love structure. You want to go mad for a moment -- and then structure it."

After graduation, he worked at a home for retarded adults, an experience he's still mining in his plays. Then came "Mass Appeal."

Flash forward two decades: Stitt is the head of CMU playwriting who recruited Davis to fly in once a week during the past academic year to serve as playwright-mentor to the graduate student playwrights. In the process, he came to "love" Pittsburgh -- his word. "There's a sensibility here -- it's a great place to work."

And in the process of chatting about CMU's Summer New Plays Project, he mentioned he was working on a new play that had already had its Manhattan Theater Club reading with Judd Hirsch and been optioned by producer Doug Cramer.

When Cramer comes to see it this weekend, its possible future will become clearer. Davis is optimistic about the work with actors Michael Graves and Jennifer Woodward (CMU '90) and director Peter Frisch (outgoing CMU drama head).

The central figure in "Sex King" is on trial for running a prostitution ring. A female reporter comes to interview him. In the resulting encounters, the characters change.

"It's the personalities and urges and needs of characters that drive stories along," Davis says. "You have to make sure they're grounded and real, make sure it's not manipulated. ... You need a good beginning, middle and end. Give the actors a challenge -- characters that go through change.

"I like the first draft best. But I love it when actors get involved -- their insights, personalities, dilemmas, conflicts."

"A play is a dream in a way. In dream theory, they say every person is you. If your subconscious is active in writing a play, in rehearsal you find interesting patterns and threads."

Right now, "The Sex King" "feels to me in good shape. At readings [such as it's had already], people tend to get involved. It has life."

Asked for any connections between it and "Mass Appeal," he says, "Sexual energy and spirituality seems to have something in common -- maybe that's one reason the church is so tough on sexuality."

This working playwright has many other projects under way, including two musicals, "Austin's Bridge" and "Body Snatchers, the Musical." There's no retirement plan for playwrights, he points out: "That's what's good about it. You're always changing -- finding people or situations who provoke you."

In other words, plays happen all around us. The playwright, though, is the one who can then provide the structure to turn life into a play.

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