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Long IslandLI Life

ON THE ISLE

The double pile of manuscripts in Fred De Feis' crowded

wood-paneled office is at least a foot high, containing some 50 or more new

plays by hopeful authors from all over the world, waiting to be read.

"We get 250 to 300 plays a year," said De Feis, the producer and director

of Arena Players Repertory Company. His playhouse, with a main and a second

stage, is tucked in a strip shopping mall across from Republic Airport in East

Farmingdale, where it alighted in 1972. From 1959 to 1963, Arena was actually

in an airport: Idlewild (now JFK) in Queens. That was after its birth in 1954

and first home in a downtown Brooklyn YWCA.

For most of those years, DeFeis has produced world premieres, usually one

or two a year. In 1974, he premiered the then-unknown Alan Menken's first

musical, "Dear Worthy Editor." Menken went on to write "Little Shop of

Horrors," "Beauty and the Beast" and other Disney hits. Another success story

is Joseph Dougherty, whose "Murder for Pleasure" debuted at Arena in 1977 and

who went on to write "Digby," which won awards Off-Broadway, and the book for

Broadway's "My Favorite Year." Several plays that had their first outings at

Arena moved to Off-Broadway and other regional stages, De Feis said.

"It amazes me that playwrights just write play after play and keep

submitting them," said De Feis. Arena's productions are recorded in a national

theater yearbook and its search for new material is publicized by the

Dramatists Guild and other trade groups.

De Feis said he mainly goes for plays on provocative social issues,

including abortion, AIDS and prostitution. "They don't make money, but they

challenge me," he said. They also often engender allegiance from the chosen

playwrights.

One of those is Sean David Bennett, whose "A House Divided" is the latest

drama to challenge De Feis. The play, about a priest falsely accused of

molesting a boy, and the effects on the priest's Irish-American family, opens

Thursday at Arena's Main Stage theater and runs through March 13. "This is not

the kind of entertainment Long Islanders want," De Feis added. "They want

musicals or comedies."

To keep money coming in - though the nonprofit theater also receives grants

and contributions - De Feis is presenting "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," by

Ron Clark and Sam Bodrick, at the smaller theater next door. "I revive it

whenever I need money," he said.

Bennett said that De Feis "is an absolute godsend. I don't understand why

he isn't more famous.... He just has an instinct for what works on stage, and

what doesn't.... He's brilliant."

Bennett - whose day job is senior program coordinator at Boston

University's law school - won a 2004 Edward F. Albee Playwriting Fellowship to

hone his drama while staying at Albee's oceanfront Montauk home in June. (Albee

chatted with him every morning, but not about the play, he said.) However, it

still needed many revisions, as most plays do. "From the first rehearsal, I

realized Fred knows more than I will ever know about what the audience will

like, and what will bore them," said Bennett.

De Feis said Bennett's was the fourth play about priests and pedophilia he

read in close succession, and by far the best. "Most playwrights don't know how

to flesh out characters," but Bennett's have "no empty holes. You understand

them."

His play had been turned down many times, said Bennett, "because it's a

very strong indictment of the Catholic Church." Bennett was "baptized into the

church," he said, but has been long disaffected by what he called its "abuse of

power." He said he was spurred to start the play, in 2003, by scandals in

Boston and by a report he read about a young priest's fate in Baltimore.

Bennett, who has been writing plays for about five years, after acting,

directing and doing other writing, said that last year he sent out about 100

copies of this play, 100 letters without a script, and another 100 mailings

about other plays.

Largely because Arena agreed to produce "A House Divided," the play now has

a healthy future, including upcoming runs in Baltimore, Boston and Ireland. It

also will be produced at the Journeyman Theater Ensemble in Washington, D.C.,

whose artistic director asked him to be their playwright in residence. One of

his plays, "Fall Out," won a 2004 best play award at the Playwrights' Platform

in Boston, he said, and another, "Trick," about spousal abuse, is to be

performed by Manhattan's Off-Broadway Abington Theater.

Tickets to Arena, 296 Rte. 109, East Farmingdale, are $16 Thursdays at 8:30

p.m., $18 Fridays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., and $22 Saturdays at

8:30 p.m. Call 516-293-0674 or visit www.arenaplayers.org.

WISDOM OF JEOPARDY!

Ken Jennings shares "Words of Wisdom From the All-Time Jeopardy! Champion" at

Nassau Community College, College Center Building, Garden City, Thursday at 1

and 7 p.m.; free. For more information, call Phyllis Kurland, 516-572-7153.

FILM TALK

Speakers from the Suffolk chapter of United Cerebral Palsy will conduct

discussions after screenings of the film "Rory O'Shea Was Here" at the Cinema

Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington. The fictional Irish film, which has

received mixed reviews, follows the friendship of two disabled young men.

Screenings with speakers are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 4 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 20. Film runs through Feb. 24, $9, call 631-423-7611.

E-mail Aileen Jacobson at jacobson@newsday.com

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