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Pintauro Returns To Drama Roots In New Play; ’Cathedral’ Opens

Originally Posted: April 16, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

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The playwright directing actors Tom Godfrey and Kate Middleton. Photos by Douglas Harrington

Sag Harbor - Long-time Sag Harbor resident, playwright/novelist Joe Pintauro, has a new play, "Cathedral" opening this month in NYC at the Manhattan Theatre Source.

One of America's most prolific and respected playwrights, Pintauro first appeared on the New York theater scene with "A, My Name Is Alice" at The Circle in The Square. The production was directed by Dustin Hoffman and starred Robert Duvall. He has since written dozens of plays that have been performed internationally including "Snow Orchid," "Raft of the Medusa," Beside Herself," "The Dead Boy," and "Men's Lives" and "By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea" which both premiered at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

Among the actors that have performed Pintauro's works are Sir Ian McKellan, William Hurt, Roy Scheider, Mercedes Ruhl, Olympia Dukakis, Peter Boyle, Jude Law, and Bobby LuPone, just to name a few.

Joe Pintauro discusses staging with actor Kate Middleton.

Along with several volumes of poetry, Pintauro has written two novels, "State Of Grace" and "Cold Hands," which the New York Times selected as one of the best novels of the year in 1980. After an initial email interview from his winter home in Key West, Hamptons.com caught up with Pintauro for some follow-up and photos in Manhattan at David Mamet's and Bill Macy's Atlantic Theatre were he was rehearsing his new play.

Douglas Harrington: I believe it was as a working parish priest that you submitted your first play for production to Circle In The Square and it was selected by a young Dustin Hoffman with the intention of directing in it his friend and roommate at the time, Robert Duvall. Although all of you were fairly new to the game, you have to admit that it was a pretty auspicious beginning to a career for a novice playwright. Was your religious vocation at the time an inspiration for the play? At the time, where were you in the spiritual journey that eventually led you away from the priesthood and to the theatre?

Joe Pintauro: I don't like looking at myself and when asked, I feel like I'm making it up, particularly questions of my "religious vocation." I'm talking about someone else, or so it feels. It's rather unbelievable at this point in my life, still it's like a flag sticking out of my ear. It doesn't go away. So, was it an inspiration to my writing? No. Studied theology after graduating from college where I majored in philosophy and - yeah, advertising and marketing.

While in the Seminary up on the Niagara River I'd written a play in which three prophets of the old testament come out of Sheol to investigate Christ's adult life. My Pop was divorced before he married my Mom, so we were turned down for Catholic school. Her friends in the PTA were all Jewish. My brother went to Stuyvesant, I, to John Adams High. Our colleges didn't ask for marriage certificates.

In Brooklyn, as a priest, I secretly joined Catholic underground organizations to stop the war. I was volunteering for an organization called TECHO, (roof in Spanish), where I photographed and documented the exodus of farm people in Peru and Chile to Lima and Santiago. Salvador Allende, then an M.D. in Santiago was building fabricas [factories] and nursing the populations in the barrios. He became president, but through Richard Nixon was assassinated in the horrifying coup which raped Chile for 17 years.

The playwright consulting his "Cathedral" working script.

John XXIII, a liberal pope of the sixties, "opened the windows" and orthodoxy was on the wane. Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, were replaced by Bobby Dylan and Corita Kent, a pop artist nun from L.A. who started the Graffiti movement and introduced me to the Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan and his draft card burning Viet Nam anti-war movement. Dan, poet and activist, went to prison for it. The Flower Power movement was a crowbar into both secular and religious orthodoxy and caused a rather permanent shift in Western consciousness. Woodstock and the dis-identification with prior generations was a kind of quake. On duty days in my dark Brooklyn rectory with its forest green vinyl walls, I endured empty hours of doing nothing. A friend told me of a Village Voice ad for short plays to be directed by 10 new directors. Dustin chose mine and I found myself sneaking out at night and driving my little black Comet over the Williamsburg Bridge to The Circle In The Square for rehearsals.

The play was called "A, My Name Is Alice," an alphabet game. Two grieving strangers get drunk in a cemetery while tending the graves of their spouses. I'd often drop Dustin and Duvall in Hell's Kitchen, then sneak back over the bridge. Threw pebbles at the pastor's window when I forgot my key. That was the beginning of the end.

DH: You told me in an interview we did years ago that you moved to Sag Harbor to write a play or a novel because you had, via Harper and Row, "...eleven books battling for shelf space" in the bookstores and they were not going to publish anything else. Would you elaborate a little on those earlier published works? Were they all books of poetry? I believe there was some notice of your early plays, published or not, before "Snow Orchid."

JP: I left the priesthood after six years. Got a dog, cat, copywriter job, apartment, long hair. Went guitaring and performing anti-war poems in Harlem storefronts on weekends. Sister Mary Corita's artwork was showing up in museums and galleries with stories on front pages of the New York Times because of her confrontations with conservative Cardinal McIntyre, head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. But Corita's order was answerable to the Pope only and the Pope was liberal. McIntyre had to eat it as the L.A. nuns threw off coifs and went walking into the wind. Harper and Row offered her and me a book through Curtis Brown. "To Believe In God" in five colors, oversimplified and now clichéd, it debunked authoritarianism and dogmatism and supported the Woodstock brand of anti-war, anti-establishment spirit. I collaborated on two more with Corita and four more with Norman LaLiberte, called "Rainbow Box," a small part of a cultural tsunami. Today, 21st century, we're seeing the beginning of the end of the backlash to all that, TV ministries and mega churches of Bible thumpers who tell you what to do in bed and with your life and money are on the wane again. My parents were staunch Democrats. I backed Hillary. Still - hooray for Obama.

The Bay Street Theatre premiere production of Men's Lives. Image courtesy of Bay
Street Theater

DH: So setting out to write a novel or a play, you ended up doing both. The novel "Cold Hands" and the play "Snow Orchid" came out almost simultaneously to critical acclaim. Often, first works are specifically autobiographical in nature. Was that the case for either of these works or perhaps you believe that everything a writer writes is, at least tacitly, autobiographical?

JP: Acclaim? "Cold Hands" yes, but "Snow Orchid," though reviewed by all the papers and twice at length in the New York Times, was awkward and fairly vulgar. Still, Frank Rich compared it to "Raging Bull." I had no idea, after all I'd been through, that the theater was so uptight. Mario Puzo and Gay Talese were up at Columbia asking writers to bite their lips and be brutally honest about immigrant life in America. I over-responded purposefully and am happy I did. "Cold Hands" went beyond set limits in part through that same advice. I love both my first novel and first play for those reasons of courage. "Snow Orchid" later played beautifully in a small London theater, all the reviewers showed up and most liked it. In New York some walked out. In London, there was no room for those who wanted to get in. We're getting over our xenophobia. If "Slum Dog Millionaire" was sweet and lovely, "Benjamin Button" would be best movie.

At the opening night Manhattan Theatre Club dinner for "By The Sea" an agent on the dinner line said, "I loved your play tonight, but hated the one about your crazy Sicilian mother." "My Mom's American, she works for the Red Cross." "You mean she's Elizabeth Dole?" ["By The Sea" was a collaborative play written by Pintauro, Lanford Wilson, and Terrence McNally. It was first commissioned by and premiered at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in 1995].

DH: When I first started coming to Sag Harbor in 1969 it was not, Steinbeck legacy aside, the literary oasis it is today. What was the village like in the 1970s when you first arrived? Was there a literary or artistic support system? Specifically, why did you choose Sag Harbor? To further elaborate, what, in your opinion, makes the Hamptons such a fertile artistic breeding ground?

JP: Well, Melville set Queequeg, a stowaway, on his journey to Sag Harbor, but the ship winds up in New London. Sag Harbor was the first customs port in America, before New York. When John and Elaine [Steinbeck] got lost on Route 114, they arrived in our depressed little town that was to John, the perfect Eastern American town and John, according to Elaine, wanted to be the West to East American novelist, that bagged the whole story. Did his presence here attract other writers? There's an equally strong writer presence in Key West. Is it because of Hemingway? These beautiful walkabout towns full of gorgeous American architecture are havens for stay at home workers, like writers. What attracted me was my big house and the feeling of privacy one needs to write. Also, I came here as a kid with my family for vacations to water-ski and fish.

DH: Last year Guild Hall gave you their Annual Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Arts. Not your first literary award and it certainly won't be your last, but it must have been particularly rewarding considering the source. Did it give you a reason to pause and take a look back on your body of work and your life as an artist? If so, what was the synopsis?

Playwright Joe Pintauro at rehearsals for his new play "Cathedral."

JP: The unfinished novels and plays, etc. in my drawer and on my computer, not to mention projects I want to start, would tell you I can never stop. You are what you are. Time has little to do with it. Looking back stimulates moving forward. It's a progression.

DH: We have spoken before about the artistic battlefield that is the United States. About, for example, the strong national support, both financial and public, for regional theater in countries like Great Britain and Holland, where you have had plays produced. The kind of support that seems to have been in a downward American spiral since FDR's WPA. I also joked with you that if Arthur Miller were alive today as an unknown playwright he probably couldn't get arrested on Broadway, much less have a play produced. Starting off from scratch today, your obvious talent aside, how would Joe Pintauro fare? How do you see the battlefield for today's emerging playwrights? What advice would you give?

JP: Some write plays like betting their last buck. They take a chance that a critic will love it and they'll go on and write another. But to be a significant writer, you have to marry the profession. It has to be sort of a vocation that you choose. It's a terribly big chance that you take. Being a lawyer is predictable. Steinbeck said that writing makes horse racing seem like a predictable, solid business.

It's not a great time to get published or produced. Everyone's cutting back. Good times for that are cyclical. Right now, small theaters are folding. Agents are seeing less opportunities. Profit, as always, is the bottom line and betting on new writers can be risky. Publishers are canceling contracts, newspapers are folding. It's a great time to hunker down and work on your stuff. It takes time to write a good novel. And remember, it's always on spec anyway, but it remains yours if you keep your cards close to your chest. Don't beg just anyone to read it just to prove to yourself that it's there, and don't waste too many years on it before moving to another play or book. It's your intellectual property when the interest rates spike in two years. That's when you want to show the world what you've got.

DH: You, Lanford, Terrence and I spoke about the manipulation of funding for the National Endowment of the Arts during the Bush administration by Republican and Conservative organizations as a form of censorship. Even though we have since hopefully elected ourselves into a new era of enlightenment, you spoke at that time about the selectivity of culture that had emerged, particularly amid the culture critics of the 60-second-sound-bite media. You used the definition of the word "author" to make your point so eloquently. Would you mind repeating that point again in this interview?

Joe Pintauro, with Frank Therriault, at the Lifetime Achievement Awards
presented by Guild Hall's Academy of the Arts in 2008.

JP: Yes, the word "Author" sits inside the word "Authority." You are the boss and you have to be strong enough to stay boss throughout criticism You can't be fired unless you capitulate your authority. But listen to them because those bastards are never totally wrong, but remember, we can be fools as well. It's tricky, so you have to be a smart boss and listen, because it's a privilege to get comments, even when they're mean. You just can't be anxious about what you're trying to do. Reach higher with every idea, every sentence. Often enough, if you chicken out you're working for some vague entity other than yourself and you might as well start writing pharmaceutical brochures. Old man Herman Melville's son was a businessman in Manhattan, I think I am right about this (you can Google it) but the son was so embarrassed by his father's failure that he rang his bell in Brooklyn, and Herman, a creaky old man by then, a poor customs inspector in New York, came down, opened the door to see his son spitefully put a gun to his own head and shoot himself dead before his father. Always keep it in the back of your pocket. Critics can be awfully wrong, but don't bet too much on it.

DH: I know you have a passion for fine art and have of late been actively venturing into photography. Is there a satisfaction that comes from taking photos that is different artistically from writing plays?

JP: I have some ADD. No kidding, and writing is a little more difficult for me, it takes more time, and more reorganization. Writing is deductive, architectural, logical, it requires visionary ability, design ability and demands inward reasoning. Whereas, still photography makes the organization of forms easy and instantaneous. Plays, novels, movies require wide angle, bird's eye planning, imagining a non-existent, new universe, and it gets put down word after word, in a cross-country journey with a map, a beginning, middle and end. There's just no getting there in one shot. Even just reading Anna Karenina is like living another life, other than your own. On the other hand, a photo, like a short poem, is bang. There for you, prêt a porter - paintings as well. Not to diminish the power when the vision hits your body, it can be a profound awakening. An immediate awakening. Makes life new and important in a moment. But a play or a novel, that's like a life.

DH: You have a new play, "Cathedral," opening at the Manhattan Theatre Source which you are directing as well. Can you give us a preview and tell us a little about the venue?

JP: My play is about a cathedral in a state of neglect, declining worship, declining faith and pressured by scandal, a Cardinal, who is losing his sight, a once holy, atheistic priest, an exorcist, a Buddhist, a male hustler and a ghost. This is my second attempt at putting the Bruce Ritter Covenant House scandal in perspective. It's one of those works you feel forever trapped in. Over 20 years ago, as "The Dead Boy," it was presented in London at the Royal Court. Then came "Prime Suspect" [British television series]. Now there's "Doubt" [Film version of the 2004 John Patrick Shanley play, 'Doubt: A Parable'"]. I directed it ["The Dead Boy"] in the Netherlands in the Dutch language. After seeing "Doubt" last year, which I liked, I missed my own play about the same thing. I wanted an exploration of the dichotomous internal life of a priest accused of that crime. I wanted to see a play about him, not about people reacting to the bad thing. Human failure in such a character is too interesting to leave unattended. At a production of "Endgame" last year, I decided to return to my "Dead Boy" and give it what it was missing. I'm calling it "Cathedral." It's a showcase production that will run for a month at the Manhattan Theatre Source. It is a great space. At any moment at the small space dozens of actors, cellists, violinists, and directors and technicians are swirling and buzzing all over the three floors. I'm loving playing with new work and testing myself as to what's really there. [Written and directed by Joe Pintauro, "Cathedral" will open April 23 at Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street, NYC. Artistic Director: James Lawson. For ticket reservations call 212-501-4751].

DH: Is there anything else on the horizon that we should be looking for from Joe Pintauro the playwright, novelist or photographer?

JP: A photo show in Sag Harbor called, "Peau d'Arbres" [Skin of Trees]. I've been shooting trees from close and afar in various countries and countrysides. I find the patterns in bark, shot up close and spit shot by ink jet on soft paper to be immensely satisfying. I use a full frame digital, the Canon 5D Mark II, and a medium format Hassleblad. ["Peau d'Arbres" opens May 3 and runs till May 30, at Sylvester & Company, Main Street, Sag Harbor 631-725-5012].

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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Guest (georgia wallace) from e. setauket, ny says::
What wonderful insights into the man and artistic creator, joe pintauro. The perspectives d.h. elicited through his interview were revealing , historic , and timely. I feel the author an inspiration for any artistic aspirent and am motivated to follow his work closely as his path carves its way forward. Thank you j.p. and d.h.
Apr 30, 2009 1:59 pm


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