Theatergoers in South Florida, New York, and across the globe, for that matter, know how fortunate we are to have playwright Dan Clancy in our midst.
His play, “The Timekeepers,” took home multiple Carbonell Awards in 2013. Clancy’s play “Middletown,” with its revolving cast of stage and screen stars, has been delighting audiences for years. “108 Waverly,” with book and lyrics by Clancy and music by Lynn Portas, runs through Dec. 10 at Plays of Wilton at The Foundry. Directed by Bruce Linser, “108 Waverly” is a musical about two male couples, Brian (Jonrich Cook) and Matthew (Dylan Knight Weaver) in 1928, and Robby (Tim Canali) and Lee (Jong Sang Rheu) in 1998, navigating gay life in the same West Village apartment, 70 years apart. Dan was kind enough to make time for an interview in November 2023.
Gregg Shapiro: What is the significance of the address 108 Waverly?
Dan Clancy: When I started writing the piece, I knew I wanted the setting to be in Greenwich Village where I lived for 30 years. I chose “Waverly” for two reasons: Julius’, which is one of the oldest, if not the oldest gay bar in New York, is on Waverly Place; the second reason is that “Waverly” is very easy to rhyme with.
GS: When was the first production?
DC: The first production was in Queens Theatre in the Park in 2001.
GS: How many productions have there been?
DC: “108 Waverly” has had five productions: Queens Theatre in the Park, Palm Springs, Chicago, the New York City Gay Fest, and Tel Aviv.
GS: 1928 was 95 years ago and 1998 was 25 years ago. What was your intention for setting “108 Waverly” during those years?
DC: I selected 1928 because there are several books written about gay life in the 1920s, and I used them as references. I also wanted it to take place before the Crash of 1929. I chose 1998 because I began writing the piece then, and also because the “cocktail” that finally had an effect on fighting HIV was approved in 1997 - and this figures into the story of the 1998 couple.
GS: Did you always envision “108 Waverly” as a musical?
DC: Lynn Portas and I were looking for a new project. When I mentioned the idea of this play, she was excited about composing music from two different time periods.
GS: What makes Lynn Portas a good collaborator?
DC: Lynn is a brilliant composer. We met when teaching at the same school more than thirty years ago. I have no musical talent - non-singer. I write the lyrics and she sets them to music, and so makes them memorable.
GS: Was the 1998 couple, novelist Lee (played by Jong Sang Rheu) and gym bunny/circuit party queen Robbie (Tim Canali), originally written as interracial?
DC: The original play was written for two white couples. Twelve years ago, we revisited the play for a backers’ audition and needed the stakes to be higher for the 90s couple. I (had) just had conversations with some of my fellow playwrights, two of whom were Asian. They complained that there were not enough Asian characters represented on stage. That gave me the idea to make the 90s couple interracial.
GS: When Robby asks Lee about the Korean word for gay, Lee tells him it’s “men who plant seeds in the wind.” The line got a good laugh when I saw the play. Did you make that up or is that the real definition?
DC: I love that line! [Laughs] Unfortunately, I don’t remember if I read the phrase somewhere or came up with it.
GS: Speaking of laughing, I would say that “108 Waverly” is a drama, but there are wonderful moments of humor. How important is it for you to incorporate humor in your work?
DC: Both of my parents were born in Ireland, and I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. The “Irish wake” was a part of my life from an early age. I saw people crying, and then a short time later, there was much laughter. That experience greatly influenced my writing: laughter and tragedy are only a heartbeat away.
GS: Act II of “108 Waverly” opens with the song “Mr. Backlash” which is incredibly timely, especially with the rise in anti-gay/anti-drag violence.
DC: I heard “Mr. Backlash” at the first rehearsal three weeks ago, and I realized that the message, written in 1998, is as relevant today as it was then, especially for those of us who live in Florida. The first line says it all: “It’s not safe to go into the world today.”
GS: Gay adoption is also a central theme of “108 Waverly.” Was this something that you ever considered doing?
DC: In 1998, I was 53 and felt that the possibility of adopting had passed me by. The one thing I wish I could have done was to be a parent. I love kids. That’s why I was in education for 33 years.
GS: Matthew (Dylan Knight Weaver), one half of the 1928 couple, and the one who struggles the most with being gay (in public, at least), tells his lover Brian (Jonrich Cook), “We should have met 100 years from now,” which takes on special meaning considering all that has occurred regarding same-sex marriage in the 21st century.
DC: In the 1920s, no one ever thought about the possibility of gay marriage. In the 1990s, some people thought it was time to fight for the right to marry while others felt that our energy should be spent on more pressing issues, such as the government’s response to the AIDS crisis. Now, in 2023, the discussion about marriage is about will the right be taken away. We’ve come a long way and maybe not.
GS: Have you started thinking about or working on your next theatrical project?
DC: I’m at the “walking stage” with a new play right now. When I was eight, I visited my grandfather in Ireland. We would walk the fields of his farm at night after dinner. He gave me great advice: “Dan if you are troubled or unsure of something, Walk the land with your thoughts.” I’m doing that now with the idea of two couples who live in adjacent apartments - their living rooms have a common wall. Not sure who they are, and maybe tomorrow’s walk will provide answers.