For the seventh consecutive July, I was recently off to Dayton, Ohio as one of five judges in FutureFest, the marvelous contest for new plays that's been happening annually at the Dayton Playhouse since 1991. Executive director David Seyer goes to the immense trouble of recruiting new plays, then two different committees read the many submissions -- 407 this year -- and the six they like best are put on stage for one performance each. That's right: Actors, directors, and designers do each play all of once, just so an audience can see it and five judges can assess it. Three scripts are given full productions and three get staged readings. That might seem to give an edge to the scripts receiving productions, but no: Of the 12 previous FutureFests, six of one (productions) and a half-dozen of the other (readings) have emerged as winners.

This year, Seyer asked me to come out a day early to give a pre-Festival talk on my life and career as a theater-lover and drama critic. I immediately said yes, partly because I wanted to take the opportunity to apologize to the audience; for, last year, I was ruthlessly unkind to one of the scripts and castigated the author who was sitting on stage.

His play dealt with Gloria, a faded actress who's about to do an Off-Off-Broadway play that her boyfriend will bring to Broadway only if she's 100% happy. While Gloria's character is supposed to be 45, she wants Sally, the playwright, to change it to 35, lest her audience think she's that old (which she is). When Sally won't do so, Gloria tells leading man Chad to alter the text at every performance. He goes along with it for a while but finally refuses. Gloria then says she'll sabotage the production: "Props can be misplaced. Lines can be flubbed. Entrances can be missed." On opening night, the producer and director nail shut the door of her dressing room so she can't get out and perform. (Equity wouldn't sit still for one of its performers treated this way.) Sally does the part, and all is well; the director even says that a critic leaving the theater told him he liked it. (Critics don't do that.) Angels approach the producer at intermission and offer to move the show to Broadway. (Wouldn't they wait till the second act was over to see if the whole show held together?)

No, the playwright didn't know the territory. Worse was the fact that he constantly mocked his betters. The producer said he'd recycle his pink sets from his "all-gay version of Our Town." Gloria said, "The only good playwright is a dead playwright." Hey, I like Light up the Sky as much as anyone, but Moss Hart was in more of a position to write about this subject than a guy who'd never had a professional production. Seemed like sour grapes to me, and I let him know it.

Upon my return, I received an e-mail from the woman who'd played Gloria telling me that I had humiliated the playwright and that, as a guest in their home, I should have behaved better. She was absolutely correct. Two wrongs don't make a right, and I apologized to her. Now I wanted to ask forgiveness from the audience.

I told the crowd that I'm usually supportive of theater. I like to be "a theatrical matchmaker," for whenever I see a play, I don't only care whether I like it but I also wonder what audience might. I once saw a play about young blacks in a singles bar. Well, I'm not young or black and, while I'm not married, I'm not quite singl, in that I've been with the same woman for more than a quarter-century. So while I thought the play was stupid, I encouraged singles to see it because they'd relate to it and would possibly enjoy seeing people doing even stupider things than they themselves had ever done in a singles bar. "And," I concluded my review, "who knows who you'll meet in the lobby before, during, or after the play? Maybe you won't be single much longer." The theater had to extend the play by two weeks to accommodate the ticket demand. If I'd just written a pan based on what I'd felt, that wouldn't have happened. Why shouldn't audience members who might enjoy a play get the chance to see it?

I also said that I love to give a production the benefit of the doubt, so if I feel that it's not ready when I see it, I often envision the production I think it will be when the actors have more performances under their belts. I added that I assess a play the way judges do at the Olympics: Everyone starts out with 10 points, and a percentage point gets shaved anytime I see something I don't like. "Believe me," I told them, "I know many critics who do it just the other way. You start off at zero with them and have to work your way up a percentage point at a time."

The cast of Easy Prey, the play that was the subjectof Filichia’s wrath at last year’s FutureFest
The cast of Easy Prey, the play that was the subject
of Filichia’s wrath at last year’s FutureFest
Then I got to the matter at hand, admitting that those who saw me on stage last year excoriating the backstage play and its playwright might seriously doubt that I was the good guy I was claiming to be. I apologized for my bad behavior but went on to explain that I don't have tolerance for plays that mock plays for I love theater so much and, much more often than not, I respect the people who do the really hard work in making it happen. (It's like that old saw: "I can criticize my relatives, but you can't.") I'm not saying that all was forgiven after my explanation, but most of those present seemed to understand my point of view.

All went well -- until I encountered a play in this FutureFest that was worse than the play I eviscerated last year. This one was a very poor man's Otherwise Engaged in which a young playwright is constantly interrupted by his mother, sister, uncle, and black gay roommate. Everyone was so nasty to each other: "I think it sucks," "don't be a smart-ass," "you're an asshole," etc. Worst of all was the roommate's adopting a German accent and saying that he was a member of the Gestapo while castigating the Jewish mother. No, I'm sorry: Worst of all was when she mocked him for coming from a family that existed on "food stamps and peanut butter."

When my turn came to speak, I said as gently as I could that every week, when I review on TV, the anchorperson says: "So what did you think of such-and-such?" If I didn't like the show, I always say, "It wasn't for me but maybe it will be for you." Oh, I did add that the young gay black man's using a Gestapo officer's voice and demeanor to a Jewish mother was in terrible taste, only exacerbated by the mother's retort. But I certainly was more controlled and gracious than I'd been the year before.

After we judges pontificated, Seyer took the microphone and Phil Donahued his way through the audience to get comments. A few people agreed with what I said; a few didn't. Then an elderly black woman said in a matter-of-fact voice that the play was truthful, for her relocating from the South to the supposedly enlightened North only showed her that prejudice was everywhere and that a Jewish mother would, in fact, speak in ignorant terms like that to a black person. (Incidentally, she also took the time to take a swipe at homosexuals, saying that it's quite a "waste" for a handsome young man not to make some woman happy. Boy, did the kid playing the black, gay roommate laugh wildly at that!)

That's when I insisted on re-taking the mike. I stated that whether or not prejudice still exists isn't the point. Art has a responsibility to lead opinions, and not reinforce bad ones. When people see a play like this, they get a sense of permission to continue acting abhorrently. They could very easily miss the point when the mother eventually atones for her sins because the playwright had handled that all-too-quick sequence in a way that didn't convincingly show she actually believed it.

Oh, God -- I did it again! Some people applauded, but some didn't, and I rued the fact that I'd broken my promise to be gentle. As I walked up the aisle, one of the playhouse's most valuable players said I'd been "brilliant" but a lot of people weren't looking my way as they filed out. Then, after I went through the front door, waiting for me was the entire cast and crew of this play. I looked to see if they had buckets of tar and pillowcases full of feathers.

But no. "You said exactly what we thought!" one of them told me. "We thought it was worse than you!" stated another. They kissed and hugged me before reciting the hateful parts that I hadn't mentioned. Wow. Next year, maybe I won't have to apologize.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]