The playwright is in the house, or in this case, the playhouse: The Riverfront Playhouse in Aurora.
The Riverfront Playhouse will present Ken Levine’s comedy “Upfronts and Personal” at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays from March 18 through April 23.
Levine will be present at the shows on April 1 and 2.
Ken Levine is an Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Levine has worked on several television series, including “M*A*S*H”, “Frasier”, “The Simpsons”, “Wings”, “Everybody Loves Raymond”, “Becker” and “Dharma and Greg”.
For his work on a 1982 episode of “Cheers,” he shared an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. He also hosts the “Hollywood & Levine” podcast.
“Ken Levine has a blog that I’ve been following for about 10 years, and I frequently contribute comments, so he at least knew my name when it happened,” said Craig Gustafson, who runs the show for The Riverfront Playhouse. “I asked to read his play ‘Upfronts and Personal’. It’s like a long, great episode of “Frasier” or “Cheers,” but with more sex. He has points to make about human relations and integrity, but overall he just wants to make people laugh. And I love shows like that.
“Upfronts and Personal” is set in an upscale Manhattan hotel suite that serves as an office and reception for a studio, Worldview Television. The story tackles the process of getting a TV show on a network schedule as a studio attempts to place two sitcoms on the new fall lineup. How far will each have to go? What trade-offs do they have to make? What ethics will they have to abandon?
“The title of the piece refers to a network television event, the upfronts,” Gustafson said. “That’s when networks and sponsors come together in New York City to plan for the fall TV season. With these pitches, sponsors buy advertising time ‘up front’, based solely on the clips and faith. The ‘personal’ has to do with the intrigue and backstabbing involved in the process.”
In addition to Levine’s presence at both shows, he will participate in a post-performance discussion. A talkback is an opportunity for viewers to discuss the play with the actors, the director or, in this case, the playwright.
“From various posts on Ken’s blog, I’ve come to understand that anytime anyone in the country does one of Ken’s shows, they’re going to see it,” Gustafson said. “When I heard he was coming, I asked if he would be willing to do post-show talks, and he said ‘Yes’.”
According to Gustafson, the moderator for the “Upfronts and Personal” talks will be Debbie Trueblood, the former executive director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association.
“She’s a legendary local stage manager and an expert on bands and steering committees,” Gustafson said.
Having the playwright in the house affects those involved in the production in different ways.
“The cast’s reaction varied,” Gustafson said. “Some cast members were really excited to hear about it. One or two said, ‘Don’t tell me when he’s coming! I don’t want to know! To which I softly said, ‘Well, everyone world will know.”
“For my part, even in normal times, I am not charitable towards actors who paraphrase the lyrics of a play,” he continued. “The playwright chose those words and sentence structure for a reason, so that’s how you say it. This time it’s ‘The playwright come and see this, guys. I want the words word for word So there’s a bit of pressure. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Gustafson is also looking forward to rehearsals. For him, it’s a time when he can make changes with the actors and the characters.
“One of my favorite lines on rehearsal is ‘I like what you almost did,'” Gustafson said. “The actor had a good idea, but didn’t go far enough; so we’re fine-tuning it. I can’t make unfunny people funny. What I can do, if they have the tools, is show them interesting ways to use them. It is truly a teaching and learning experience. I really like the fine tuning of it all.
“Insiders and Personals”
When: March 18-April 23
Or: The Riverfront Playhouse, 11-13 South Water Street Mall, Aurora
Information: 630-897-9496; riverfrontplayhouse.com
Randall G. Mielke is a freelance journalist for the Beacon-News.