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A peephole view of the world of books

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

ENDPAPERS, by Thomas McCormack. Directed by Pamela Berlin. Starring Bruce McCarty, Tim Hopper, William Cain, Alex Draper, Beth Dixon and Pippa Pearthree. At Variety Arts Theatre, Third Avenue at 13th Street, NYC.

From the first few lines of Thomas McCormack’s slyly intelligent new comedy, “Endpapers,” with a publishing house executive reading through the ludicrous, sometimes threatening, cajoling letters of writers desiring to have their books bought, it’s utterly clear the author knows precisely what he’s writing about.

And with good reason, since McCormack had long worked at St. Martin’s Press, among America’s most significant publishers of, among other things, Irish books. He started in 1969, eventually attaining the position of chairman and CEO of the company, from which he retired in 1997 in order to devote himself to his first love, playwriting.

Neil Patel’s remarkable set design spreads out across the breadth of the Variety Arts Theatre’s large, open space, providing a virtual rabbit warren of cubbyholes, snugs and pigeonholes so comfortably cluttered-looking and so relaxed in feeling that it would seem extremely easy to settle in and work there.

Or not work, or at least not work very hard, as appears to be the case with at least a couple of playwright McCormack’s motley assortment of editors and executives, lovers and layabouts, novelists and know-nothings, and drinkers and slackers, each of them funnier, more insightful, more frustrated, and, often, more movingly appealing than the other.

The elegant, long-established old New York book publisher now owned and operated by the gentle, scholarly Josh Maynard is in serious trouble. For one thing, the firm has taken out an enormous financial loan and the bank behind the deal is growing increasingly nervous about its money. And the conglomerates are circling.

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For another, the already wheelchair-bound Maynard is clearly nearing the end of his days on earth, and he hasn’t been able to make up his mind about who will succeed him.

Meanwhile, the simmering caldron of greed, ambition, alcoholism and jealousy bubbles apace just beyond the doors of his office. Part satiric comedy and part semi-intellectual “thriller,” “Endpapers” bores a fascinating and wicked little peephole into the little-known world of books, the people who buy them, the people who sell them, some of the people who write them, and even one or two of the people who actually read them.

For starters, the nimble, inventive director Pamela Berlin has marshaled just about the sharpest-tongued and most rapier-witted ensemble cast currently to be seen on any New York stage, on Broadway or off.

The 11-actor cast gracing “Endpapers” breathes fire, guts and truth into McCormack’s mainly razor-edged writing. The actors are, to a man and to a woman, equally fine and equally assured, but special notice must immediately be made of a few of the participants, if only because they stand at he witty slightly sour center of the narrative.

Bruce McCarty’s Griff is a straight arrow, a onetime university lecturer who lives by an honorable, slightly woozy code of ethics, but lacks a clear vision of the jungle through which he moves with such grace.

Ted Giles, played by the highly skilled Tim Hopper with an abundance of serpentine grace, is a career conniver whose expensive clothing and superficial foreign language facility cannot ever quite conceal his essential slatternliness.

As the ironically named John Hope, the banker delegated to bring the bad news to the ailing Maynard, the crisply boyish Alex Draper is an affable envoy, a deceptively genial scorpion, but one with a potentially poisonous sting in his tail.

William Cain, founder of the estimable Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, R.I., is a Maynard of genuine dignity and force, albeit a power in distressing decline.

Also, Beth Dixon’s Kay Carson and Pippa Pearthree’s Cora McCarthy are bright, intelligent, gifted women capable of great loyalty and inventiveness, but scarred by years of living and working close to the center of power without ever actually becoming a part of the action. One is nearly drowning in alcohol, while the other is drenched with bile.

Neil Vipond is sturdy as Grover, a doomed editor with an old-fashioned, nearly outdated sense of loyalty to his writers, while the lithe Shannon Burkett’s Sheila is a hustler from the Seven Sisters looking for a rung or two worth climbing.

Maria Thayer seems a trifle too young to be Sara, Maynard’s daughter and primary life support, but she picks up speed and gathers credibility as McCormack’s rather long evening rolls along.

Precisely when the irony, sarcasm and jokiness of the convoluted office politics and inbred skullduggery threaten to wear a little thin, and even become a touch tedious, the crafty McCormack introduces a couple of vibrant, spicy characters to jolt the proceedings a bit.

Both roles are somewhat in the manner of clever cameos, but they do the job, even though each of them allows the actor involved only something approaching seven minutes or so of stage time.

First to arrive is the bumptious movie star, Ram Spencer, author of a tell-all Hollywood memoir some of the editors think will jackknife off bookstore shelves. As rendered by the slightly frightening Greg Salata, he comes off as an oily but effective caricature of the movieland hero.

Last to arrive is Peter Long, a lissome novelist in a straw hat and along silk scarf that seems to float around the stage on its own, a creampuff with a spine of tempered steel. Oliver Wadsworth delivers him as one smart cookie who hides behind a fey exterior.

“Endpapers,” itself rather late-arriving, is a surprise summer gift, a bit slight, but valuable overall.

— Joseph Hurley

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