Backstage dramas have been part of the theatrical universe since the days of Kiss Me Kate and All About Eve. New at LAB Theater Project, in Ybor City, Jared Eberlein’s The Heirs of Pretending lifts the curtain and throws open the dressing room door where a Broadway veteran – never a big star, but someone who has more than a little history, and a big ego – is attempting a comeback.
Anyone who’s ever labored in community theater, or at higher levels, will relate to the interaction between Burton Quinn and his ambitious young castmates. For the first quarter of The Heirs of Pretending, their backstage back-and-forth vacillates between catty, comic and cruel.
It’s opening night for an off-off-off-Broadway production of The Delightfully Dead Kinsman, which had been Burton’s starring vehicle back in the ‘70s. Even at 65, he believes he’s got something to prove.
Everything changes with the unexpected arrival of his estranged son John, who has always believed Dad loved the theater – his longtime mistress – more than his family.
LAB founder Owen Robertson, who’s directing The Heirs of Pretending, says Eberlein, a writer, actor and director, was thinking about his relationship with his own sons when he wrote the show. “And it resonated for me,” Robertson says. “My son’s older than Jared’s kids, and grown up, but I know how much time I missed with him because of my commitment to theater.”
The story of Burton Quinn began in 2016 at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where Eberlein and Robertson were both working on their MFAs. The Heir of Pretending, as it was then called, was Eberlein’s thesis piece.
“I was part of the original reading for it – and I loved it,” says Roberston. “But it’s just taken Jared time to tweak it and get it where he wanted it to be.”
Robertson then started LAB, which only does original, world premiere works; the company has produced several Eberlein plays. But the Florida producer/director never forgot about the backstage drama. After some leg-pulling, Robertson explains, “he did some work on it and came up with a newer version than the one I had seen; then it was taking the two and merging them together.
“I love him as a writer. He’s got a distinct knack for his dialogue, and how it works. And his voice is really clear as a playwright – he’s very consistent about what he’s doing.”
The Heirs of Pretending operates on different levels. The “new” plurality of the title is an indicator that it’s not just about Burton the “great thespian,” who missed much of his son’s life by having to make so many 8 o’clock curtains. With these people, there are plenty of personal sacrifices to go around.
“You could substitute theater with IT, or writer, or entrepreneur,” Roberston says. “Take your pick, it doesn’t matter what you choose.”
Theater people, he adds, “are not really unique. If you’re an athlete and you’re going to a game, it’s the same craziness that goes on with trying to start something.
“So it’s a theater on opening night, while at the same time talking about the sacrifice of a father for his passion. And a son trying desperately to find a way to connect to his father.”
Tickets for The Heirs of Pretending (through Nov. 19) are here. Playwright Jared Eberlein joins the cast for a talk-back after the Nov. 17 performance.
This week, Robertson announced LAB’s 2024 season:
SYD by Craig Houk, Feb. 22-March 10. Set in 1973, this historical piece explores how the Trahan family navigates their daughter Syd being arrested for lewd behavior for dancing with another woman, against the backdrop of the arson of the Upstairs Lounge in which several gay men were killed.
Fly Away Home by Gwendolyn Rice, May 2-19. In 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright’s home burned to the ground, killing his mistress, their children, two stepchildren and several others. When the news of the fire reached Wright, he immediately got on a train from Chicago to home, six hours away – in the car with him a reporter, and his mistress’ ex-husband. For six hours, what did they say to each other? The reporter trying to land a big story, and the two men working through the lack of information on what happened.
LAB Laughs 2024, July 11-21. The annual short play festival.
PER by Donald Loftus, Sept. 5-22. Based on the last beheading in Sweden. Set in 1890, the play explores the unsettling circumstances of a crime for which Per (pronounced Pear) has been institutionalized. Was it murder, or something else? Was he losing his mind, or was it something darker and more supernatural?
Crazy Quilts by Karen Fix Curry, Nov. 7-24. Lisa has come to interview a group of stitchers for a local paper – or was she sought out by the group because they’ve become aware of her private hell?