A rising political figure. A cunning campaign manager. A complicated cop. A shrewd lawyer. A battered woman. All of them figure into Jeff Keilholtz’s new play, Bad Fiction, kicking off the 2016 NewTACTics Festival of New Plays, a series of four readings of fresh scripts presented in June by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre. The Chicago-set drama will get free public readings 7 PM June 8-9.
The characters of Keilholtz’s play seem to scream “crime drama.” “You got it,” the playwright told me. “It’s a crime drama. The play whips you around from here to there, keeping the momentum moving us forward and the adrenaline high. There are moments of levity, and, yes, there is humor.”
He explained, “The play opens on Nola Spencer, whose face is swollen and bloody. Nola brings all three other characters into her world. She is panicked and injured at the outset — saying she was beaten. As the play unfolds, we find out why her face looks the way it does. … The plot involves four people who would never really be in a room together, having to deal with each other when the stakes could not be higher.”
Owen Thompson, the producer of the NewTACTics series, directs the Manhattan reading, which features Mary Beth Albers as Nola Spencer, PJ Sosko as Franklin McDonough, Jeremy Beck as Quincy Marcus and Kim Sykes as Wilhelmina “Billie” Fink. Stage directions are read by John Peralta. Yetti Steinman is stage manager.
The presentations include a pre-show wine reception (6:30 PM) followed by a 7 PM curtain and a post-show talkback with the playwright and cast, which includes company members from TACT and actors from the New York talent pool. Make reservations here.
Here’s how TACT bills Bad Fiction: “The bullets fly on the streets of crime-ridden Chicago: some directly at charismatic, crusading, would-be State’s Attorney Alexander Tyson, who’s now on the verge of winning a major election as a result of surviving an assassination attempt. But not everything is as it seems as four antagonists — a woman with a battered face, a cop with a checkered past, an ambitious campaign manager, and a cunning political lawyer — clash over what really went down that fateful day. Bad Fiction leads the audience into a dangerous and twist-filled world where the person you trust the most just might be your worst enemy.”
Keilholtz is a writer based out of New York City. His first full-length play, Nightswimming, was produced at Access Theatre by At Hand Theater Company and subsequently workshopped with Millennium Talent Group at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. It was optioned as a screenplay by L.I.F.T. Productions (William Friedkin’s “Bug”) and later by Louisiana Film Consultants (“The Mist”). Keilholtz’s new screenplay, an account of the San Francisco Chronicle Reporter who exposed Reverend Jim Jones and Peoples Temple Church, is in feature film development. His new book “A Boy From Brooklyn: Clinton Simpson and the Orphan Train” is now available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com. Keilholtz has degrees in sociology and psychology and has worked as a political professional. Bad Fiction will get a separate workshop run in Maryland in July.
Here’s more of my chat with playwright Jeff Keilholtz.
I love to hear about a playwright’s first moment of inspiration for a new work. What did you “see” first? A place? A character? A situation?
Jeff Keilholtz: About six years ago, I read about a political assassination attempt that took place in Latin America. It never let me go. It dealt with a would-be high-ranking official. Another inspiration was the Elliott Spitzer scandal. I remember reading about how a woman was beaten by her boyfriend who worked for the state police department, if I remember correctly. That event was one of the threads that ultimately exposed the “madam” scandal and pulled the Spitzer administration apart. I thought that I may have something if I could merge these two bits of inspiration together.
How influenced by political/crime thrillers are you? Are you a fan of any particular plays, films or TV series that may have inspired some of Bad Fiction? I can’t help but think of Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” when I see your title.
Jeff Keilholtz: My father was a cop. My uncles were cops. I love “Serpico.” What can I tell you? I am also a political junkie. I worked professionally in New York City politics. So, I have first-hand experience as to how hairy and high the tension and stakes can get in a world like that. The first five days as a deputy campaign manager destroyed my cell phone. It literally burned because I was fielding so many texts and calls. Politics is 24/7. It’s not for the weak-willed. I also worked as a community organizer in communities like Brownsville, Brooklyn. So, I’ve lived out a good deal of what Quincy, a character in Bad Fiction, has been through. I still watch and read politics 24/7. One of my best friends is a big-time NYC political insider. He’s a champion — really doing the people’s work. Gustave Flaubert is a big inspiration, actually. David Mamet. Kenneth Longeran. Aaron Sorkin. I think Eric Roth and Michael Mann are a phenomenal writing team. Big inspirations. Who doesn’t love Tarantino? “Homicide: Life on the Street” has always been an inspiration. That show was ahead of its time. I also consulted an outside law enforcement expert, an outside political professional and a lawyer when putting Bad Fiction to paper.
The play is set in Chicago. How come? What about Chicago is useful to this story?
Jeff Keilholtz: I see what is going on in the neighborhoods of Chicago and it reminds me of Brownsville. Chicago is, unfortunately, historically known for its political corruption. I think Chicagoans could walk out of this play saying, “F**king right! That’s how it is!”… Beyond that, the themes are pretty universal. Crime is crime. Desperation is desperation. I could probably set this play in a number of major American cities.
You’re also an actor. How did you start with dramatic writing? Do you have twin goals — acting and writing?
Jeff Keilholtz: I wrote [the play] Nightswimming as an acting vehicle for myself. I always believed that an actor should create his own work. I’ve been writing since I was a little boy. I am interested in emotional expression and the sharing of that in a live environment, like theatre. I think drama can be like church, or the therapist’s couch, when you can get that immediate and intimate. It can help reconnect you to you, you know? And that feeling is pretty exhilarating.
Where did you grow up? Where’d you go to school?
Jeff Keilholtz: I grew up in Maryland, outside of Washington, DC. I went to an arts-feeder high school that was run in a very professional way. It was a wonderful gift. I quit college to come to New York to study with Lily Lodge, who was a protégé of Lee Strasberg. I went to school in Maryland. Attended Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, Frostburg State University and American Public University.
What are you goals for the New TACTics reading? What will you be listening for?
Jeff Keilholtz: I am listening for gasps and silence in the audience. I am watching for body language. If chests are leaned forward, eyes are ahead (not looking at their cell phones), I know the music of this play may have something. If I don’t hear/see these things I’ll know I still have work to do.
Bad Fiction has an upcoming workshop this summer, too.
Jeff Keilholtz: Maryland Ensemble Theatre is an up-and-coming theatre in the DC area. They are a second home to me. They selected Bad Fiction to be a part of a playwriting workshop in 2015. It was great because we worked, it was read before a paying audience, and then the process repeated. The lab was a month long. A big help. Now the MET wants to workshop the play for 10 performances in July.
You live in New York?
Jeff Keilholtz: I am between New York and Maryland constantly, [and] L.A. when I need to be. I was last in L.A. in 2015 doing research on a biography — a book — I was commissioned to write.
What else is coming up for you?
Jeff Keilholtz: The biography I just wrote (“A Boy From Brooklyn: Clinton Simpson and the Orphan Train”) is now available on Amazon.com. I also have a screenplay in development. Bad Fiction is taking up a lot of my time as of late. I’m not complaining.
Yetti Steinman is co-producer of NewTACTics. Lauren Miller is NewTACTics advisor. TACT/The Actors Company Theatre is led by executive artistic director Scott Alan Evans and associate artistic directors Nora Chester and Jeffrey Hawkins.
In addition to NewTACTics, TACT presents “salon readings” of classic plays in its intimate TACT Studio, as well as two full Off-Broadway productions per season at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row. (I wrote about its rare revival of William Inge’s Natural Affection in 2013.)