A few years ago, a well-known Broadway actress was playing the female lead in a show in which her character was killed off at the end of the first act. Being a practical sort, she put her free time to good use by writing two books in her dressing room: a novel and a memoir.
Actor Sean Cullen, who’s been playing Cmdr. William Harbison in the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “South Pacific” since the show opened in March 2008, has done something similar. He wrote a play based loosely on incidents from the lives of his grandparents and his parents. The resulting drama is “Safe Home,” directed by Chris Henry.
The actor, whose Broadway credits include “James Joyce’s The Dead,” is refreshingly candid about the origins of “Safe Home.”
“I began it late one night on the floor of a friend’s apartment on Elizabeth Street,” he writes in a program note, “after I’d had too much to drink and couldn’t suppress the urge to write . . . something.”
That night on Elizabeth Street was 16 years ago, more than a decade before the current revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was even a dream.
Any work Cullen has done on “Safe Home” since taking up residence at the Vivian Beaumont has been in the nature of rewrites. He makes no secret of the fact that his play is extremely close to the bone.
The first characters the audience at the Interart sees are named Ada and Jim, which are the actual names of Cullen’s argumentative grandparents. “They named their sons Jimmy, Pat and John, my father,” he says.
The play in its present form was triggered, at least in part, by a letter Cullen’s sister Colleen discovered two summers ago. “My uncle Jimmy had written it from a cold and lonely outpost in Korea, in the summer of l952,” he says. “Drafted in pen and pencil,” he adds, ” and clocking in at eight pages, it is a shockingly poignant document.”
“Safe Home,” set in working class Buffalo, New York, in the early 1950s, is an honorable, if somewhat conventional first work. The play’s eight scenes jump about a bit in time, moving from 1952 and 1953 to l951, and then shifting back and forth several times.
Director Henry’s strong six-actor cast does a good job of bringing clarity to Cullen’s twisty, potentially confusing plotlines. Sincere and earnest in the extreme, “Safe Home” is the work of a writer who deserves to be encouraged.