Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Paul Clayton. Most people don’t know the name, even fans of Clayton’s friend and Greenwich Village contemporary, Bob Dylan.
New Bedford native Clayton was a leading light of the 1950s folk music resurgence. “When Bob arrived in New York in 1961, Paul already had 11 albums out,” says playwright Larry Mollin.
Clayton was also a closeted gay man who fell in love with Dylan, but his star fell as Dylan’s rose, Mollin says. Clayton grappled with substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and the changing music scene before taking his own life in 1967 at age 36.
He’s been largely forgotten since, but Mollin is trying to change that with his play, “Search: Paul Clayton,” a world premiere beginning performances Thursday at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven. Mollin says his work is “90 percent true,” with just a few things altered for dramatic coherence.
“The folk world was all really changing” at the dawn of the rock era, says Mollin, who spent time in the Village later in the 1960s. “Some people made the transition, and others didn’t and fell by the wayside.”
The play focuses on Clayton and Dylan’s knockaround Village days, including a 1964 cross-country road trip they took with two others that included a drug-fueled New Orleans party where Clayton apparently made a pass at Dylan. Mollin originally came to the story two years ago in discussions with Dylan biographer Dennis McDougal about a possible movie based on the road trip, but he ended up focusing on Clayton’s life instead.
The play stars Peter Oyloe as Clayton and Jared Weiss as Dylan, plus four other actors who play multiple characters including the musicians Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez, and sisters Carla and Suze Rotolo, the respective girlfriends of Clayton and Dylan.
Mollin’s script breaks the fourth wall often, as the characters argue over events and sing folk songs. They even do both at the same time in talking-blues numbers with lyrics by Mollin.
Early on, a sardonic Dylan complains that Clayton is “going to blame me.” Clayton says, “Never. And does it matter what anyone thinks? Everyone including me will continue to worship you.”
The play also delves into the touchy topic of musical authenticity. Many of the songs that made Dylan and others famous derived from public-domain tunes unearthed by Clayton and other, more traditional folkies.
“Dylan is an absolute genius. He would take these things and make them personal — and better,” Mollin says. “And as I say in the play, even Woody Guthrie said that folk music by its nature is the product of plagiarism. It gets passed down musically, gets adapted. All of them were doing it.”
The difference, says Mollin, is that Dylan signed with a powerful manager and began to copyright songs. Money quickly became a huge factor in the folk world. Clayton never saw much cash or acclaim. “Dylan is a genius, he was just a bad friend, basically,” Mollin says.
As the entire cast will be playing and singing onstage, it was important, says executive artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, to have a director like Randal Myler, whose credits include “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” on Broadway and “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” off-Broadway. And their music director, a veteran producer, composer, and musician, has a special stake in the show’s success: he’s Fred Mollin, the playwright’s brother.
For Larry Mollin, the play is the second part of a trilogy set in the ’60s. The first part, “The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” was about Ben Hecht and his daughter Jenny. It premiered at the Vineyard Playhouse in 2012. Mollin is writing the final part, about Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and their days at Harvard experimenting with psychedelic drugs. He hopes it will premiere at the Playhouse in 2016.
Mollin himself was a longtime Hollywood screenwriter — including on the original “Beverly Hills, 90210” — and he still spends much of the year in Los Angeles. But don’t expect glittery anecdotes about the industry: “I put in a nice 30 years and I’m happy to be out of it,” he says.
He was named an artistic associate at the Playhouse this spring, and his timing was good. This season marks the nonprofit venue’s return after a two-year, $2.5 million renovation and addition project. It didn’t change the footprint of the stage or theater itself, “except upward,” Munafo says. “We took the ceiling down, so the room seems much larger. We exposed the original cypress beams from 1833.”
The theater now has fewer seats, down to 98 from 120, but it has upgraded them and added legroom, improved restrooms, and handicap access, and added just under 2,000 square feet of new backstage space for dressing rooms.
Munafo is among those who had no idea who Paul Clayton was until Mollin’s play came her way. Mollin says he’d like people to remember Clayton and forget the recent fictional Coen brothers film about the folk era, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
“I think I wanted Paul to be remembered,” Mollin says, “and also to show that period, which was a great rousing time of people living and playing together. And I guess in a way to take off the stink of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ which portrayed the period as so dreary and the people as so unlikable.
“Even though it’s a tragic story, this story, it’s very rousing,” he says.
Theater in the park
The plight of Central American children crossing the US border alone has been a top national issue of late. Through July 27, Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company offers free, outdoor performances of “¡Bocón!,” by Lisa Loomer. It tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel, who flees a repressive military regime in Central America for Los Angeles. The show uses music and humor to follow the tale of this “bigmouth” who loses his voice when his parents are taken away and he goes in search of a new life.
“¡Bocón!” plays Thursdays and Sundays and is written to be understood in both English and Spanish. It plays in repertory with Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s “Invasion,” which plays Wednesdays and Saturdays in English and Fridays in Spanish. Both shows are directed by Apollinaire artistic director Danielle Fauteux Jacques.
All performances are free and begin at 7:30 p.m. in Mary O’Malley Park on the Chelsea waterfront, by the north end of the Tobin Bridge. Directions and information: 617-887-2336, www.apollinairetheatre.com.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a repoting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the city where the Apollinaire Theater is based.