THE THIRD STORY
They call themselves Titanic Theatre Company and say they are not afraid to take chances, despite all the icebergs out there. Nonetheless, their first fund-raiser was a reading of a short play called “Life Jacket.” (Rimshot, please.)
No surprise that their first production is a comedy, the New England premiere of Charles Busch’s “The Third Story,” which examines the dysfunctional dynamic of a mother-son screenwriting team with the help of characters from a 1940s-style gangster flick and a sci-fi B movie.
Actors Danny Bolton, Shelley Brown, Marc Harpin, Alisha Jansky, and Michael Ricca all knew or at least knew of each other when they first gathered at Harpin’s home in Chestnut Hill with an idea that they wanted to work together.
“We were getting together for about a year or so and reading a whole bunch of different plays, mainly focusing on comedy. Charles Busch, we read a few of his,” says Jansky. “The thing about this one, first of all it’s not overdone, it’s not like ‘Divine Sister’ that everybody is doing right now. But also, it has a really good combination of classic Charles Busch elements, and it was also really rooted in a very real and honest and touching relationship between a mother and son.”
It’s 1949. Peg is a boozy, has-been screenwriter. Her son Drew, also a screenwriter, is holed up in Omaha, trying to get away from Hollywood and his mother by working at the post office and reading Tolstoy. Peg bursts in, wanting Drew to collaborate on her next script so she can close a career-reviving deal. The story ideas they kick around come to life on the stage and begin to intersect.
Titanic, which for now expects to produce one show a year, came together gradually. “Part of it was a kind of feeling-out. We were dating for a year or so to see how we would work together,” says Brown. “Then when we found this play that we loved, that’s when we got into gear and started fund-raising and getting a date for the play.’’
Jansky plays Dr. Constance Hudson, a cloning scientist in the sci-fi script. Brown plays Peg as well as Dr. Rutenspitz, Constance’s scientific mentor. The rest of the cast includes Rick Park, Erin Eva Butcher, Brett Milanowski, and Jordan Sobel, who plays Drew and the son of a mob leader.
Some fledgling companies do everything themselves, including playing all the parts. But only two of the five Titanic members are in the “Third Story” cast. The rest of the actors and the director, Adam Zahler, were hired from outside.
The group members who aren’t acting are contributing offstage to things like scenery and sound design, they say, but there’s another reason they’re not all piling onstage.
“This is a new company, we’re just starting out, and we wanted to make sure that we were not biting off more than we could chew,” says Jansky. “We realized that this was our first production, and it really was essential that a couple of company members were producing and making sure that it all ran smoothly, which if all of us were performing we would not be able to do.”
One outside actor in the cast is Park, perhaps best known here lately for his role as Dillon in the stage adaptation of Boston crime classic “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
“They approached me about the role,” Park says, “and how could I say no? Playing the Charles Busch role in a Charles Busch play?”
In “The Third Story,” Park is a very different kind of gangster, Queenie Bartlett, “the first lady of crime” in the 1940s. He doubles as a witch named Baba Yaga. The specter of Busch, who played the roles in the 2008 premiere, is a little intimidating, he says.
“The danger is in trying to mimic him,” Park says. “But everybody has their own way of making people laugh, and you sort of fall back on that. So it’s finding what I can do to get the laughs where I think they should be. And sometimes those aren’t the ones that Charles Busch wrote or that he got onstage.”
And how did Park prepare for the role? By watching a lot of Susan Hayward and Barbara Stanwyck clips on YouTube. When it comes time to slip into character now, wardrobe also helps.
“There’s a pair of black opera gloves that I start off with,” he says. “As soon as you put them on — they’re just sort of shiny and satiny, and all of a sudden the hands become completely different and your arms cross in a different way and you touch people differently. . . . I put the gloves on and I’m caressing people all the time.
“It’s a challenging play, but I think we’ve all met the challenge,” Park says. In his case, last weekend that meant 16 hours of rehearsal — “about 75 percent of it in heels.”