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‘Where There’$ a Will’ review: Theatre Three revives Jeffrey Sanzel’s early farce

Steve McCoy, Jessica Contino, top, and Maryellen Molfetta

Steve McCoy, Jessica Contino, top, and Maryellen Molfetta in "Where There'$ a Will" at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. Credit: Theatre Three Productions

Jeffrey Sanzel was an 18-year-old high school kid in Rochester when he wrote “Where There’$ a Will,” making its professional premiere Saturday night at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

The play was produced in 1985 by a teen drama group and the script languished in a drawer for 30 years until a director of an Ohio youth ensemble who appeared in the Rochester production asked Sanzel if he still had a copy. After much revision, it was presented in 2015. “I had nothing to do with it, other than writing the play,” Sanzel says. “It was very illuminating to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Looking for a comedy to perform in Theatre Three’s following season, Sanzel, executive artistic director of the company — best known for his annual adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” starring himself as Scrooge — passed the manuscript around. “Everyone was onboard,” he recalls, adding, “It’s kind of daunting. My name is on it three times — author, director and producer. There’s no place to hide.”

OLDIES BUT GOODIES

“Where There’$ a Will” reflects Sanzel’s early and enduring love of theater — especially sprawling, old-fashioned comedies by George Kaufman and Moss Hart (“You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner”). Like those classics, “Will” features a large cast (17) that is now prohibitively expensive to produce on Broadway with few exceptions — among them the recent revival of “The Front Page” starring Nathan Lane.

“I have no illusions,” says Sanzel, “Public Theater won’t be knocking on my door. But it might have a future in high schools and community theaters where they like to give as many people a chance to shine as possible.”

“Where There’$ a Will” is a farce in the vintage mold. “You have to buy the basic premise,” he says. “Then everything that follows will fall in line.”

The premise of Sanzel’s farce is a ghastly play written by a potato farmer. “In his will, he leaves a half-million dollars to each of 10 theater acquaintances,” Sanzel says. “But they must produce his play, word for word — no changes — or the money goes to his fourth wife. The widow, of course, will do anything to keep the play from being produced as stipulated in the will.”

REVISE AWAY

Theatre Three board president Andrew Markowitz is Sanzel’s assistant director “because I needed an objective voice.” Also, the cast — “my A team,” Sanzel calls them — freely offers suggestions. “We’ve made revisions at every single rehearsal,” Sanzel says. “One night we made 16 changes.

“This is not my first time at the rodeo,” he says, noting that he’s written, produced and/or directed more than 125 children’s plays as well as educational touring productions such as “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust” and a musical revue, “1968: Rock the World,” which he co-wrote with the late Ellen Michelmore.

Still, he says, “I’ve learned not to fall in love with every line I write.”

WHAT “Where There’$ a Will”

WHEN | WHERE Through May 6. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. “Behind the Curtain” buffet dinner and talk, 5 p.m. April 23 (following 3 p.m. performance)

TICKETS $20-$35; “Behind the Curtain”: $30; 631-928-9100, theatrethree.com

WHAT One man’s art is another man’s folly. In “Art,” the 1998 Tony and Olivier Award-winning play now getting another showing at the Merrick Theatre, Serge has paid hundreds of thousands of francs — it’s a French-language play written before the euro supplanted most European currencies — for what appears to his friends to be a blank canvas. All white. Marc thinks Serge is nuts while Yvan tries to smooth things over between his two best friends. This delicious three-way conversation about aesthetics and amity was written by Yasmina Reza, who later brought “God of Carnage” to Broadway and regional theaters everywhere.

WHEN | WHERE Through April 30. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Merrick Theatre & Center for the Arts, 2222 Hewlett Ave.

TICKETS $20-$22; 516-868-6400, merrick-theatre.com

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