You’re not really Glosta until Ken Riaf writes a play about you.
Yow, he has done it again. Local lawyer and ex-fisherman Ken Riaf premiered another play about a Gloucester legend at Glouceser Stage Company last weekend. In truth, it wasn’t a full production -- just a reading -- but it came across as a production. The whole play unfolded exactly as a full production would do. It was part of their “Never Dark” nights. The actors were first-class. The place was packed.
And why not? Riaf’s first play, “My Station In Life,” ran as a reading first, then a full scheduled production last season. It was a huge hit and pressed many buttons from our Glosta history book. It was also somewhat of a risk for the Stage Company to produce because it was unproven and local -- it might have been too narrow to play. But it wasn’t. Ken Baltin won Best Actor in the Elliot Norton Awards. You can’t win best actor without a great play.
This new show — “Think of Me Tuesday” — is even more fun. It begins as a local history play in much the same way as the first but with a fictional character, Jim “Buddy” Chum, running for mayor for the umpteenth time -- and losing again. Is that ringing any bells as to who is the hero here? But just when you think you know what the outcome will be, the play begins spinning real Gloucester downtown history into a wonderful fantasy, splicing fact and fiction into a very satisfying and Fishtowny ending. Along the way, the play takes marvelous license mixing real political figures and real political events between today and yesterday. A taste of Sefatia, Carolyn Kirk, John Bell, Bruce Tobey, Jeffrey Cohen (Metropolitan Properties and I4, C2), Jim Davis, the Ruberti family, Sam Park, even Bill Squillace and a dash of Damon Cummings might have figured into the plot. The play’s existing mayor is a mixture of all these mayors, played by the amazing Jacqui Parker, who played her own idea of the mayor. You can’t say it was Sefatia, but you couldn’t say it wasn’t either. The lead was Ken Baltin -- who had previously played Simon Geller -- and he was perfect for the part. Baltin, who had the play practically memorized for a much more effective reading, has a somewhat rubber face. He plays such a sympathetic character you were rooting for him to win the election and improve his somewhat flagging prospects all around.
However, just when Riaf has you all set up into thinking you know where the plot is going, the wings of the play begin to flap and it takes a completely unpredictable turn into fantasy. Riaf has played with us by misdirection. We think we’re in on the plot, but we’re not. The current mayor, Selma Townie, has an unfortunate fatal boating accident, leading to the runner-up with the most votes to take over, as per the city’s charter. That’s Chum. And of course, the play’s issues become a morality tale for Gloucester values versus developers’ values. “You moved here because you liked it. Why do you have to change it so much?” demands Mayor Chum to the “money” people behind the project.
The various projects involved become somewhat of a combination of new projects and old projects. That old mall project and the new mall could be easily confused, as could various former hotel plans and the current new Fort hotel. The developer seems less like Cohen’s Boston-based Metropolitan Properties and more like a developer or two who bought a house here first to assist their path into the community. Chum becomes an admirable character, likable even. We’re rooting for him to succeed -- after all this failure early in the plot -- and he does. Perhaps Ken Riaf is that Chum guy because his images of what Gloucester should be shine strong, as shown through his lead character.
The play is a marvelous combination of fact and fantasy, all Glosta-based and sourced. The audience kept roaring over references that only a Gloucesterite would get.
Riaf has really mastered the “Gloucester one-liner” too: simple, direct, insider lines that had the audience involuntarily screaming with laughter out of the blue -- the whole crowd too. Good for Gloucester Stage Company and artistic director Robert Walsh, who also directed this reading, for recognizing that great local work can be part of their mix. But beware, local playwrights, the play’s the thing and the work has to be sensational to get a chance. Riaf sold 2,000 tickets to his last play in October. He can do even better in a summer slot next season. Word of mouth sells theater tickets best and this play will create a huge buzz. I can’t believe I’m saying this -- but it’s better even than the first one -- which was terrific. It’s far more Gloucester than most previous Horowitz local works because the people, events and feelings are more real, not caricatures. We almost know them already. Gloucester Stage has some amazing “Never Dark” nights on upcoming Tuesday and Sunday nights, including guest stars Ed Asner, Jessica Bates and Christopher Lydon.
But I guess soon it can be said that you’re not really Glosta until Ken Riaf has written a play about you.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.