All Steve and Larry had hoped for during their weekend getaway to Philadelphia was a break from the daily routine and responsibilities of being parents of an active tantrum-throwing toddler. But when they meet some “other guy” at the hotel, temptation strikes and threatens to fracture their relationship. What had begun as an innocent, quiet, relaxing trip somehow turns into a quest for redefining the rules of their relationship. Can they ever return to “normal” again in order to keep their family intact?
GENRE: Heartfelt comedy
LENGTH: 90 minutes – 2 hours
CAST SIZE: 5
CHARACTERS: 4 Male (3 mid 30s, 1 early 20s); 1 Female (Late 50s/early 60s)
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THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
While in a long stretch of writer’s block in early 2005, I was close to surrender, vowing to never write again. I had been in this state before, and always found a way out. But this time things felt different. A clean break with the writer’s life not only loomed, it seemed imminent.
At the time, Danny and I had been together 7 years. Our son was 4 years old. I rationalized writing should take a back seat to my family and raising our son. As if it were a binary choice: write or parent, but not both. At least parenting would provide an understandable and legitimate justification for not churning out characters and pages of dialogue. How could I mold words when I would be too busy molding another human being?
I continued to attend my writers’ group but brought in older material no one in the group had heard before. If it were new to them, maybe it would be new to me, and provide a spark to move on to something else. But new ideas were like raindrops in an arid and barren desert. They never reached the sand.
My friend Roger assured me I’d write again when I had something I wanted to say. But what if I never had something I wanted to say? During this time, I decided it might be helpful to see what others were saying. I attended a few theatre festivals and saw some shows on and off Broadway. Every show was like a message-heavy lecture, with the playwright’s opinion soldered into every word of every one of their characters. Sometimes a play with a strong message or point of view works, but only if the overall show is entertaining and the message doesn’t repetitively batter you into a stupor. Who wants to watch a staged dissertation or a long op-ed piece?
In several shows, characters often broke the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. I had never written a character who did this. And for good reason: as an audience member, I preferred to watch actors perform, and didn’t want to feel like I was part of the performance. But heck, these playwrights were getting produced while I languished in recycling old material. And that’s when I decided to join the fourth wall breakers’ party. If I had nothing I wanted to say, then write something I didn’t want to say. In other words, write something that would irritate me: a play where all the characters broke the fourth wall. This is how Two Spoons began—an experiment to write a play I would hate. And hopefully, with such a forthright attempt to fail, I might be able to break the wall of my writer’s block.
Despite the two lead roles in Two Spoons, Steve and Larry, being based on my husband Danny and me, I disliked them tremendously for directly addressing the audience, and I wished they would stop. But it was my fault. I gave them unpoetic license to break the fourth wall into a million little pieces, and they seized the moment. As it turned out, Steve and Larry had a lot to say, so they kept sharing. The more they swung a verbal wrecking ball at the fourth wall, the more comfortable I got with the idea of there not being a wall at all. So, in a way, the technique helped crack my writer’s block. And yet, I still believed I was writing a piece of trash.
Until I wasn’t. Somewhere in the process of typing AT RISE and BLACKOUT, I discovered there were some things I wanted to say about life after all. What does it mean to be two dads in a long-term relationship but also reject the notion of marriage? Can you be independent and committed at the same time? Is individual freedom attainable with family obligations and responsibility? What happens when fantasy intrudes on reality? And did Ben Franklin have anything to say about any of this?
Throughout 2006, while working on Two Spoons, I continued submitting other plays to theatres, contests, and publishers. One of those submissions—my play Andrew Reaches the Other Side—went to Gypsy Productions in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since Gypsy produced gay-themed plays, and the lead character in Andrew was a gay Buccaneers fan, I thought the play would go over well in the Tampa/St. Pete area.
After Gypsy’s artistic director Trevor read the play, he emailed to say he was considering it for a future production. Around the same time, I had updated my website with news of finishing Two Spoons. Trevor saw the post then asked if he could read it. I sent him a copy. A few weeks later, he said both plays were under consideration for their upcoming season. A few weeks after that, he called to say Gypsy wanted to include Two Spoons in the upcoming season. And in May 2007, Two Spoons, premiered at the Suncoast Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida.
A play I had written to fail was somehow doing the opposite. Well, kind of. Read on.
Gypsy’s production was the first of 3 in the span of 3 years. The play was subsequently staged in New York City in 2008 and in Chicago in 2009. Each production was vastly different from the other. What follows is something I’ve wanted to say about each.
St. Petersburg, FL
I couldn’t take time off from work (and parenthood) to be in Florida for rehearsals, but I spoke with Trevor, who was directing, by phone almost every day. I felt like he understood the play and we were on the same page for how it could be staged. The play seemed to be in good hands, but without being physically present, I had to have faith in our conversations.
Much like Other Side, Gypsy was a small nonprofit company. So in exchange for them covering my travel and lodging expenses, I waived royalties. Trevor flew me down for tech week, dress rehearsal, and opening weekend. The day I arrived, he picked me up from the airport. Then before rehearsal, we had an early dinner with Daniel, one the actors in the show, at CiCi’s pizza. Okay, not New York-style pizza, but good enough.
I was excited to see the space and meet the rest of the cast and crew. I worried, would Gypsy do the world premiere justice? While the production wasn’t the most polished production I’d ever seen, the answer was a resounding yes. The actors embodied the characters with so much energy, heart, love, and desire to get it right. The production was scrappy and beautiful and just about perfect.
After dress rehearsal, I thanked everyone for their dedication with a corny baseball analogy, a rambling monologue about the thousands of baseball players who dream of making it to the pros, but never do. And that for those who do, how most of them will never get to the World Series. The baseball analogy was met with a few vacant stares. Then I made the comparison to being playwright, and how all playwrights dream of seeing their play(s) come to life on stage. And how grateful and lucky I was for this opportunity to be in the game with them. I rambled on a little more then simply said, “break a leg tomorrow night.”
My husband Danny flew down to be with me for opening night. We loved every second of watching the cast and crew bring the story and characters to life. Their hard work and devotion paid off:
And now, with Peter Mercurio’s Two Spoons, Gypsy is offering us a tightly staged production that’s as professional as anything you’ll find at American Stage, Stageworks or Jobsite.
The script is wonderfully literate; the acting is superb; the design is attractive. Director (and artistic director) Trevor Keller is finally demanding top quality from his fellow artists.
Mercurio’s dialogue is so polished that you can’t help but enjoy it for its efficiency and intelligence. You also have to like his many story-telling devices…
Trevor Keller’s direction is kinetic, as fluid as Mercurio’s script…
Everyone in St. Pete, at Gypsy and in the supportive gay community, treated me like a star. The respect and attention was a little discomforting but also humbling. I hadn’t planned to return for the show’s closing three weeks later, but I had to see it and my new Gypsy family one more time. Unfortunately, Two Spoons couldn’t extend at the Suncoast. The resort in which the theatre resided was about to be bulldozed for a rumored Home Depot. I believe Two Spoons brought the final curtain down on the Suncoast Theatre.
St. Pete in a word: CHARMING
New York City
Because I wanted my family and friends to see the play, I began the process of putting together a NYC production. Like Andrew, pre-production and rehearsals ran as smooth as could be. We opened on September 5, 2008, with a few very minor glitches in timing and pace, but nothing disastrous. Everyone felt good about the production. A couple of days later, our first online review came out.
In compiling this post, I couldn’t find the review that slammed the show otherwise I would have posted a quote, but let’s just say at the time after I read it I crumpled into a fetal position in Danny’s arms and heaved tears all night until exhaustion finally put me to sleep.
So much time and energy goes into getting a play produced and for our first review to stink so bad was devastating. Maybe the play should have been leveled with the Suncoast Theatre a year earlier. The next day, I flipped out even more, feverishly made script changes and demanded my friend Chuck, the show’s director, make changes as well. Of course, in hindsight, I know this was a mistake. The review was just one person’s opinion. Luckily, our second review was an rave:
Peter Mercurio’s splendid new comedy about a soon-to-be-wed gay couple shows us that with a little ingenuity, even the aphorisms of the old American sage Ben Franklin can avail us!
Two Spoons puts gay love into perspective as it poses poignant questions while delivering non-stop laughs and penetrating social commentary; besides a skillful examination into the psychology of same-sex relationships, the play is replete with throwbacks to Benjamin Franklin, his maxims and his rather unique way of living.
I give Two Spoons two thumbs way up!
Here’s the thing, both reviewers had attended the same performance. Go figure. It’s all a crapshoot. All subsequent reviews were mixed. From one of those other reviews, I learned a valuable lesson: if you’re going to portray a gay pickup scene in a steam room, you had better show some full frontal. At least for one horny reviewer.*
*Not to be confused with the features reporter I threw out of an Andrew Reaches the Other Side rehearsal for coming on to one of the actors.
For the rest of the run, I ignored the official reviews and paid attention to the audience. They are always the true barometer. You can tell a lot by the way they react during and respond after the show. Some of the best feedback came via email from complete strangers days or weeks later:
Just a note to say how much my partner & I enjoyed Two Spoons, which we caught this past Sunday. We were extremely impressed by the credibility of the characters, dialogue, and situations… and we laughed (and identified 100%) with Steve’s horror at the thought of his relationship with Larry labeled as “an open relationship,” regardless of his interest and openness to a 3-way. I also loved the way you worked in the element of the inner thoughts of the characters. It’s something that’s easy to do in a novel, but very tricky to pull off in a play without compromising the theatricality. Yet you do it magnificently. Truly a riveting experience, touching and funny. We’ll watch for future productions of your works. And of course feel free to add my email address to your mailings.
New York City in a word: STEADY
I hadn’t submitted the play to Bailiwick Rep. Someone involved with the company had seen or heard about the NYC production and contacted me about staging the play in Chicago. Wow, Chicago! My first thought was, this is going to be great, there is so much talent in Chicago. I believed the play would receive a top notch production, which then would lead to more productions across the country. Oh, the folly of a daydream believer. Cheer up sleepy Jean, it gets worse.
While I was grateful to have another staging of the play, the Chicago production turned out to be a disaster. Once again, I was unable to be there in person for casting or rehearsals. I spoke with the director regularly, and he seemed to understand the play. I arrived the day of dress rehearsal. Two seconds in, I realized he didn’t and the play was in trouble. The performance was flatter than flat. I thought I had written an edgy comedy, but it felt more like an interminable funeral procession. Every aspect lacked energy, except for the vibrant lighting, which of course illuminated the flaws. I prayed the lights would somehow permanently blow an irreplaceable fuse.
I squirmed and cringed in the back row, wishing I could sneak out without having to meet anyone after. But there were post-dress rehearsal drinks planned. What could I do? And what could I say? “PULL THE PLUG!” came to mind. If only another great Chicago fire could sweep through just this part of the city to destroy the theatre, spare me the humiliation, and save the audiences from wasting their time and money. I didn’t know how things had gone so wrong. All I knew was nothing had gone right. And there was no time to fix it.
Now I’m no stranger to rough, shaky rehearsals, but witnessing something you wrote bomb, especially when you’ve seen it succeed in the past, is hard to bear. That dress rehearsal was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on stage. And I’ve seen some pretty bad shit.
Unfortunately, opening night didn’t get any better. Deadly. I think half the audience fell asleep. I made some excuse why I couldn’t stick around afterward and escaped as fast as I could. And that was it. I was in town for two more days and was supposed attend the next two performances, but I never returned.
The Chicago production deserved to be panned and the critics didn’t disappoint. The destructive Chicago fire, via reviews, came, but it burned just one person—me. Yes, the show was bland from start to finish, but the critics blamed the writing and raked me over the piping hot coals. Thanks Chicago for overlooking all the other flaws.
In contrast to the St. Pete and NYC reviews, here’s a taste of how Two Spoons was received in Chicago:
…this situation could be enough on which to base a full-length play, but not in the hands of Peter Mercurio, whose script keeps the stakes low and the characters static.
Mercurio has no idea how to write realistic dialogue…
Peter Mercurio’s very talky and sometimes meandering comedy Two Spoons.
Peter Mercurio’s sluggish comedy…makes some strained attempts to weave the aphorisms of Philadelphia native Ben Franklin into his script…
Static, meandering, sluggish, strained. Ouch! They sure fixed my wagon. Now, while it’s tempting to call the critics lazy for just blaming me, they weren’t wrong. I agreed with every word. The Chicago production truly was a confusing and lackluster shit show that didn’t make any sense. Still, it was hardly all my fault. (The play had worked twice before.) But, I suppose, when everyone else bails, the writer must go down with the ship. Silver lining: I learned the art of blurb revenge, that is, pulling quotes from reviews to make them seem like raves.
Danny, our son Kevin, and I were to return to Chicago a few weeks later. We had planned to see the show and make Chicago our summer vacation. Flights were booked. Hotel reserved. Cubs tickets scouted. Sightseeing destinations mapped out. Just one problem. I couldn’t go back. I had no desire to see the show again. And I didn’t want my family to see it either. Danny understood. We’d lose the money spent on airfare, but we agreed it was a small price to pay for avoiding torture.** (Mercifully for future audiences, the show closed early.)
Adding insult to injury, I never got paid. The contract read, “Producer shall pay six percent (6%) of the gross weekly box office receipts to Author(s) as royalty for the production.” So even if the show grossed only $100—it probably made more—I should have received at least $6. But wait, it gets better. Four years later in 2013, after my family’s Found story went viral, someone associated with the artistic director/producer, now at a different organization, expressed interest in reading a stage version of Found, reminding me that I had previously worked with said artistic director. As if I could forget. Um, how about asking him to cough up my royalties plus compensation for all the pain and suffering I endured for his hack job on my play? Okay, so the embers still smolder.
Chicago in a word: LISTLESS.
**To make up for losing our summer vacation, I slapped together an impromptu trip to Niagara Falls (sans barrel). There’s nothing like crisp Canadian air to clear out the senses. We also cleansed ourselves behind the Canadian falls, under the American falls, and in a speed boat zipping around and plunging into the Niagara River rapids. We made it back to Chicago in July 2016.
The first question I always get asked about Two Spoons is, “Did this really happen?” or “Is it autobiographical?” Well, to some degree, everything I write is autobiographical or a part of me, even the 70-year-old grandparents in my play Hatch. But I’ve never been asked if they are “autobiographically” Danny and me.
But with Two Spoons, because Steve and Larry strongly resembled Danny and me, our careers, and our family dynamics, inquiring minds wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t. I was always coy or evasive when answering, often saying the characters were based on us, but the situation—especially their threesome with a stranger at hotel in Philadelphia—was fiction. I would say I borrowed a lot from our real lives, but to write the threesome stuff, I would hypothesize. What if it really did happen, how would the characters react? What if it changed the nature of their relationship? What if only one of them wanted to have more threesomes? How would it affect their son? Could they resolve the differences to keep their family intact?
The truth: it happened. Just not the exact way depicted in the play. For the sake of drama, I fictionalized a lot. But the overall threat to our real-life relationship was like those of the onstage characters. And just like in the play, we never stopped talking and eventually grew stronger. Steve and Larry managed to sort it all out in under 2 hours. It took Danny and me a little longer. Ultimately, our real-life bond proved more enduring. Steve and Larry haven’t been seen or heard from since 2009.
Now, a word from the greatest fourth wall breaker of all time.