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Rattlestick Productions Shakes up the Off-Off Broadway Scene

By New York City
Named for a ceremonial American Indian object, not a paralyzing snake, Off-Off Broadway's Rattlestick Productions is one of the lucky venues to achieve success in introducing emerging, focused American playwrights to the global theatrical village. Though dogged by the same financial concerns faced by other non-profits, their equally dogged pursuit of quality work has resulted in Rattlestick becoming the possessor of one of the most enviable professional networks and artistic track records in town.

Rattlestick's newest production, Vick's Boy, by Ben Bettenbender, is the kind of play that regularly turned up on Broadway 30 years ago, but has become, like passenger pigeons, extinct from the scene. A comedy with an edge of pugnaciousness, Vick's Boy focuses on Lester (Andrew Polk), a hopelessly nerdy corporate cog who recalls what might have become of J. Pierrepont Finch (in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) if poor Ponty hadn't done good. Lester becomes intertwined with Vick (Rob Sedgwick), an opportunistic colleague several administrative levels above Lester who has just piqued the libidinal interest of Molly (Johanna Day), the evil boss by day who transmogrifies into a self-repressed, sexually-starved woman at night. Film the tryst, Vick asks his boy, and then, through the magic of corporate blackmail, all promotions and power shall be theirs for the taking.

Simple plot, yes--but what is refreshing about Vick's Boy is the tightness and completeness of the script. From a clear and engaging storyline, the setups and jokes are so innate to the characters and situations that neither the playwright nor the director, the talented Bob Balaban, have to resort to semaphorical trickery to tell us when to laugh. What a relief! Balaban's direction capitalizes upon Bettenbender's brain-bending farce so we, the audience, are suffused with laughter and thought-provoked at the same time.

This production, however, is not so much a breakthrough for Rattlestick as it is just more example of the kind of good work to come from this group. For best perspective, one must credit the artistic director, David Van Asselt, a former contractor turned playwright, who has run the company for most of its eight-year life, turning it into a reliable, Off-Off Broadway drama tank.

Armed with a simple mission--to develop new American plays, preferably written by a stable of homegrown dramatists--Van Asselt and the Rattlestick team have shaken the establishment with a remarkable record of accomplishment, from work by Neil (bash) LaBute to work from newcomers Jessica Goldberg and Adam Rapp, to such productions as Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night and their most popular success, Message to Michael.

Rattlestick's success is clearly linked to their mentor program, in which well-regarded stage professionals take an active role in realizing each production's potential. Edward Albee, Jon Robin Baitz, Joe Mantello, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman and Robert Whitehead are but a few of those who have lent skill and sweat to Rattlestick, and while Vick's Boy itself lacks an official mentor, the show possesses a de facto mentor in Daryl Roth, the producing dynamo responsible for Wit, How I Learned to Drive, De La Guarda and Old Wicked Songs, who is above the title as a co-backer of the play.

The mentoring process, says Van Asselt, is as diverse as the mentors themselves. Playwright Marsha Norman, for example, tends to be very hands-on, while legendary Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, on the other hand, did not request a script and did not take notes during readings that he attended. Then from memory, and, according to Van Asselt, in exacting detail, Whitehead imparted an astonishing line-by-line critique of what he had heard, followed by his best personal encouragement.

As artistic director, Van Asselt tends to compliment the mentor by limiting his own critiques to their essence. "Being a playwright myself," he says, "one of my strengths is I can come to the critique of a play by looking at it through the eyes of a playwright, as opposed to a director or a producer or an actor. And when I critique something, I tend to think 'what are you trying to say?' before I say something."

Such abundance of feedback, Van Asselt says, is not only helpful but necessary in an industry where the artist is constantly "so personally vulnerable...only in the theater is one so way, way exposed--and that's because you really have to put yourself out there in ways that no one in any other industry make you do--maybe because its live, or because its in real time."

Van Asselt's own play The Messenger will be produced at Rattlestick later this season, following the New York premiere of the late Harry Kondoleon's Saved or Destroyed and before Travis Baker's play Sex and Violence rounds out the season.


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