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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org