Dan Hunter has been a singer-songwriter, a farmer, an author, a government official, a carpenter, and a lobbyist for cultural groups.
But only now, Hunter says, with his comedy “Legally Dead” beginning performances Thursday at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, does he actually think of himself as a playwright.
In the 1990s, the Iowa native wrote, and toured that state with, a musical based on postcards from the early 1900s. That led to Boston, where he earned his master’s degree in the Boston University playwriting program. He served as managing director of the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre for three years after that. Some of his plays were produced, including “Red Elm” at BPT.
“My initial attempts went over pretty well, although I remember feeling guilty, having inflicted bad theater on the world,” he says.
At 59, the Cambridge resident thinks he may have gotten it right this time. “Legally Dead” took two or three years to come together, he says, while he’s been working as a consultant to nonprofit groups and a lecturer at BU.
“If you’re building a house, you have a series of steps in mind that you can follow,” he says. “I feel like every time I come to [write] a play, you have to rebuild the whole framework; you have to think it through right from the foundation again. Having fundamental notions about how to do it, I think, is a mistake.”
Talking about the new play, though, he takes the metaphor in another direction. “Plays are not about building houses. Plays are more about how houses fall apart,” he notes, and that’s certainly the case with “Legally Dead.”
It’s Christmas Eve on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and Marsha Lincoln (Kippy Goldfarb) is hosting her three grown kids for the holidays. Church secretary Rebecca (Jen Alison Lewis) keeps busy rooting out Mom’s stash of booze and pouring it down the sink. Lawyer Annie (Adrianne Krstansky) has just flown in from their native Illinois, where the family owns a Cadillac dealership in Peoria. That’s right, they’re Lincoln Cadillac. And car salesman Tommy (Christopher James Webb) has just gotten out of prison and wants to be the man of the family, preferably at a profit.
And Dad? He’s been missing for five years. Annie has drawn up the papers to have him declared dead so they can sell the dealership and get on with their lives, but the others aren’t so sure. There is, naturally, the question of where Dad has been all this time, and also what each of them might know about that.
“It’s a pretty conventional dark comedy, and it’s an awful lot of fun,” says director Steven Bogart. To him, what the play is about is this: “You can’t always get what you want, but in the end you get what you deserve.”
With a televangelist blaring from the TV, “Legally Dead” starts out like a familiar sort of satire of Middle American yokels, but it grows as this incredibly dysfunctional family goes through the twists and turns of plot. “They are family and in a strange way they do really care about each other, but it just comes out all wacky,” Bogart says.
“What makes something like this funny is when the characters feel authentic and real,” the director says. “So the goal has been for the actors to really discover the honesty behind the humor and how real these characters can be . . . and allow the comedy to come from text rather than from caricature.”
In recent years Hunter has taken a whack at writing short stories and considered a novel, but began to realize that he thinks like a playwright.
“As we walk through life, our understanding of people is based on watching them, watching their body language and listening to what they say and watching the choices they make. We are never allowed to see inside the mind of somebody else,” Hunter says, the way fiction writers let us see inside the minds of their characters. “I found myself become disenchanted with the intervention of the writer between the reader and the character. In the theater, there is a freedom for the audience of being able to make their own decisions about where to look and what to think and how to put things together in terms of story.”
He also enjoys the collaborative side of the playwriting process, because the actors and director “will see things that you don’t see, and ask questions that it would never occur to you to ask.”
As an example, he offered a recent rehearsal where Bogart and an actor wanted to alter the tone of a one-word line, changing it from “Elbows?” to “Elbows.” It made him think about his intent in writing the line, he says.
“That was a big moment in rehearsal,” Bogart recalls, laughing. “I turned to Dan and said, does it have to be a question mark? And he was very funny, he went, ‘Oh my God! Here we go!’ ”
But any input Hunter gets now won’t top the most important note he got on “Legally Dead,” from Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and a BU playwriting professor.
“I originally thought this piece was a serious play,” Hunter says, “and it was Kate who said to me at the first reading, ‘This is a comedy, and you don’t know it, do you?’ And I said, ‘No, not really.’ Once she said that, though, I started looking at it as a comedy and felt free to push it further.”