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Making It in Midtown

At this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival, Ron Palillo stars in I'm in Love with Your Wife, Austin Pendleton directs The Speed Queen, and Take Me America presents a musical look at political asylum.

Ean Sheehy and Ron Palillo in I'm in Love with Your Wife
(© Alicia Zappier)
Although now in its eighth year, the Midtown International Theatre Festival, running July 16-August 5 at four venues on West 36th and 37th Streets, still struggles to get out from under the shadow of that other festival -- the one that dominates New York City's theater scene come August.

"I never even knew it existed! When my agent called, I said, 'What is that? The Fringe?'" exclaims Ron Palillo, who will be appearing in the MITF production, I'm in Love with Your Wife. In the show, Palillo plays a psychiatrist in Alex Goldberg's comedy about sexually obsessed New Yorkers. "I just liked the play. I read the first scene that I'm in, and I was laughing out loud. By the time I got to the third page, I wanted to do it. It's freaking funny. I based my character on my own shrink, although the character's means of getting the desired effect are a little suspect and questionable."

Palillo acknowledges that it's been difficult to escape from typecasting stemming from his days as Arnold Horshack on the 1970s sit-com Welcome Back Kotter. "People in the business said, 'He's that, that's what he is, he's nothing but that.' But the show did open up a lot of chances to do theater; when I would do a play in the country, people would come thinking they're going to see Arnold Horshack, I would give them something else, and they would be just as satisfied." Still, Palillo will be involved in the upcoming film version of Welcome Back Kotter. "I'd like to play Mr. Woodman, although they're also talking about me possibly playing Horshack's father."

Palillo isn't the only notable name involved in the Midtown festival. Austin Pendleton, who recently received a special Drama Desk Award in May for his body of work, will be directing The Speed Queen, written and performed by Anne Stockton, based on the novel by Stewart O'Nan. The solo play is about a woman on death row who talks about her wild life of sex, drugs, and crime. "For the record, I'm against the whole idea of capital punishment," says Pendleton. "But I defy anyone to sit through the show and not think at some point, 'Oh, kill that woman! Kill her!' Her life is made up of a series of wrong turns that ends someplace horrible. You really feel for this woman, and are appalled by her, and sometimes, you genuinely kind of like her."

The complexity of the character appealed to Pendleton, who first read O'Nan's novel at Stockton's request. "At first, she just wanted to know if I would be her acting coach on her adaptation," says Pendleton. "But gradually we talked about different ways of refining the script and I thought, 'why don't I just direct?' Every time we do the show, we keep redefining things. The original material is so rich, you never get to the bottom of it."

Bill Nabel has also got great source material for his new musical Take Me America, which follows the stories of nine refugees and three INS agents. "The show is a human look at the asylum process, based on a documentary called Well Founded Fear," he states. "The filmmakers got cameras inside the INS and recorded interviews of people applying for asylum in the United States. After I saw it, I got in touch with the documentarian and said I wanted to make a musical out of it. He looked at me kind of cross-eyed for about 10 minutes and then said, 'Well, what's your idea?' And I said, 'A Chorus Line for refugees.'

"Clearly there's a political bent to asylum and immigration. But we were trying very hard to get the human angle," he continues. "The agents, for example, are everyday Americans making God-like decisions about people's lives. These are life and death decisions in most cases. Who's going to get in? Who's going to get sent back, maybe to die?"

In addition to these three shows, the Midtown International Theater Festival features nearly 40 others. Among them are longtime Broadway stage manager Craig Jacobs' provocative drama To The Contrary; Adina Taubman's solo show A Line in the Sand, based on interviews she conducted in Littleton, Colorado, the site of the Columbine shootings; and revivals of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves and George Axelrod's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

While the sheer number of summer theater festivals these days seems daunting, there's no denying their popularity. Pendleton believes they may fill a need that's not currently being met by the more upscale Broadway and Off-Broadway houses. "Going to the theater, it costs a hundred bucks, it's usually infested with celebrities, and it has gotten very unrelaxed," he says. "When I first came to New York in the '60s the whole scene was more about just hanging out and coming to see shows. I think what's happening with festivals is either a conscious or unconscious attempt to find that again."


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