Bruce McCarty, Pippa Pearthree, and Neil Vipond in Endpapers(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bruce McCarty, Pippa Pearthree, and Neil Vipond in Endpapers
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Thomas McCormack was for many years the chairman and chief executive officer at St. Martin's Press. So it isn't surprising that in writing his first full-length play, the nicely titled Endpapers, McCormack has followed advice often given to aspiring authors: He's written about what he knows, in this case, the publishing business. Indeed, at 70, he may have written everything he knows; McCormack's drama, which follows a transfer of power at a top New York house, is as packed with incident as any 400-page novel.

The sheer amount of machinations and confrontations sprawling across Neil Patel's wide and detailed set, and under Rui Rita's cluttered-office lighting, prompts a particular thought: During his St. Martin's tenure, McCormack edited far more novels than plays. So he may not fully realize that, though plays and novels are similar in terms of delineation of character and incorporation of dialogue, they need to be organized differently. Generally, plays can't fly off in too many directions, which is what Endpapers does. The wheelchair-bound yet robust Joshua Maynard (William Cain) knows it's time to pass the baton at his venerated but troubled establishment. His potential successors are Ted Giles (Tim Hopper), a wily bottom-liner, and Griff (Bruce McCarty), who has a background in philosophy and whose ethics seem solidly in place. At Joshua Maynard Publishing, only the soignée Kay Carson (Beth Dixon) seems to favor Ted for Joshua's desk; those in the thoughtful, reluctant Griff's corner include the plain-spoken Cora McCarthy (Pippa Pearthree), the reticent Grover Shively (Neil Vipond), and, possibly, the 27-year-old Sara Maynard, Joshua's daughter and heir, who is newly returned to the business.

For most of McCormack's first act, he sets up a battle between the two favored men. Which of them will be able to keep touchy authors, like the egotistical movie star Ram Spencer (Greg Salata) and the Tom Wolfeish Peter Long (Oliver Wadsworth), signed, line-edited and happy? Which of them can figure out how to keep the indebted house independent? Oh, yes, the corporate wolves are yapping at the privately owned door; this situation is made explicit in a few speeches from banker John Hope (Alex Draper), who is sympathetic to Maynard's plight but no longer inclined to forgiveness.

Undoubtedly, it's McCormack's intention to fool the audience into thinking he's writing a two-guys-in-combat play that exposes the uglier aspects of publishing. But, in pitting Ted and Griff against one another as if they were Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, he unexpectedly insists that the choice between them isn't quite so black-and-white. Unfortunately, in pulling the rug out from under them and positing that there's a compromise position, McCormack extends the action beyond it's ability to hold attention: He's written a play that rambles on at least a half hour after reaching a viable finale. And when he's finished making his attenuated point and at last gets to lights-out, he does it with a joke that is painfully soupy.

Tim Hopper and Beth Dixon in Endpapers(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tim Hopper and Beth Dixon in Endpapers
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As someone who has watched what's happened to publishing in the last half-century, McCormack knows whereof he speaks. He's observed the types who go into publishing because they love books, the ones who go into publishing because they love dollar signs, the dedicated editors, and the recent college grads looking to be dedicated editors. His people look right and, when they talk, they usually sound right. Much of the gab between and among them is witty and informative; when it isn't, it's amusingly brittle and gossipy. McCormack gets things off his chest about what happens to industry standards when large corporations grab up small independent houses. He does so with writerly aplomb and so is able, by extrapolation, to mourn what is happening to morality in society at large. (Jon Robin Baitz covered much of the same ground in The Substance of Fire.)

Pamela Berlin directs the play with a firm hand. As this manipulative bunch invades one another's cubicles and locks horns around the boss's conference table, there's a lot of traffic, and Berlin contains it well. She keeps a good rein on most of the actors' emoting, too. McCarty as the taciturn but determined Griff and Hopper as the unscrupulous Ted set off the most sparks, but Pearthree, Dixon, and Vipond give three dimensions to figures that might otherwise have seemed only to possess only two. Playing a smart young woman who so far has outsmarted herself, Thayer is fine, except when she has to bring off a couple of unplayable speeches to her deceased Dad. Shannon Burkett, as an editorial assistant focused on the main chance, has the right WASP-ish look and delivery. William Cain is very Roger-Straus-like, and Alex Draper's John Hope is efficient without being officious. Only Greg Salata as the vain Hollywood jerk and Oliver Wadsworth as Tom Wolfe--er, as Peter Long--turn character into caricature.

If only Thomas McCormack had known when to end Endpapers.