The West Coast premiere of Joe DiPietro’s “Clever Little Lies,” now at the B Street Theatre starring Julia Brothers, rates as a quiet little coup for the busy and transitioning regional theater. Staging DiPietro’s work is not uncommon for B Street. They’ve done that since his earliest professional years.
However, the Tony Award-winning DiPietro has earned a reputation as a major modern playwright penning accessible hits. As such, major theaters commission his work and stand in line to offer his new plays to their audiences.
His popular 1997 hit “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” has propped up many a theater around the country since its debut. DiPietrio’s book and lyrics on Broadway’s “Memphis” earned him the Tonys and his work on the Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It” will be on display at Music Circus later this summer.
How DiPietro’s new audience-pleasing domestic comedy-drama landed in Sacramento before Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle is its own winding narrative.
There was a time when DiPietro’s name meant nothing. He sent out his scripts unsolicited, hoping they might get read and noticed. In 1994, his play “The Virgin Weeps” landed on the figurative doorstep of a scuffling B Street Theatre, which took a chance on the unknown work by the unknown playwright and produced the world premiere.
The successful production kept B Street in business and helped fortify the idea that it should become a new works theater. The theater and playwright have stayed in touch over the years even as they both have grown and developed while never forgetting their early formative association.
Brothers, a B Street company member based in New York, has performed at the theater nearly since its inception in the pre-DiPrieto days. Performances in early shows including “Women Who Steal” and “Communicating Doors” created an earned familiarity with B Street audiences.
Though being a company member at B Street means she is regularly offered roles there, Brothers works all over the country as most freelance artists do. Several years ago she moved to the East Coast from the Bay Area to be closer to her family. Around that time Brothers’ longtime friend, actress Marlo Thomas, invited her to a new play reading.
“Marlo had been looking for a new project,” Brothers said. “She said ‘I’m reading a brand new play, the first table reading ever; the playwright has never even heard it.’ ”
Reading opposite Thomas, playing her husband, was Alan Alda. Two other actors read the characters of their son and daughter-in-law. The only other attendees besides Brothers were DiPietro, David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse (a theater in New Brunswick, N.J.) and Thomas’ old friend Elaine May.
“Right out of the gate, there was a lot to the play,” Brothers said. DiPietro revised it several times during runs at George Street and a theater in the Hamptons. It finally settled in at the prestigious Off-Broadway Westside Theatre in New York.
“When that happened I called David Saint and said I’m here in the city and I’m not doing anything at the moment (which of course means I’m looking for a job) – can I throw my hat in the ring to be Marlo’s understudy?”
The theater didn’t have an understudy for Thomas because she famously never got sick while performing.
“Understudies are really things of the past, unless you’re on Broadway,” Brothers said. “Nobody’s got the money for it. You’ve got to be really, really ill to not go on.”
Unfortunately, Thomas got really, really ill and a sold-out performance had to be canceled and the money refunded.
“So the theater said we’re just going to bring Julia in and then of course Marlo never got sick again,” Brothers said. So she never went on in New York although she spent weeks sitting in the wings watching Thomas so she could recreate her performance if necessary.
When Brothers’ pals at B Street, Buck Busfield and Dave Pierini, heard she was understudying Off-Broadway they immediately wanted to read the script, and Brothers sent it to them. They loved it and called DiPietro about getting the production rights.
“Joe said, ‘Well, you can only do it if you cast Julia Brothers,’ and they said, ‘Well, oddly enough, we’ve known Julia since 1992, and that’s who we got the script from, and that’s what we were intending to do!’ ” Brothers said.
The challenge for Brothers when she started working on the show was getting Thomas’ voice out of her head in the role of a family matriarch who must manage how her family handles her adult son’s affair with a younger woman. Brothers described her challenge as trying “to get her rhythms and her patterns, how she would deliver something, out of my head and do it the way I would do it.”
Director Pierini talked about that with Brothers from the beginning of rehearsals and said it took time for her shed all of Thomas’ mannerisms. “Buck (Busfield) came in and watched an early ‘stumble’ through about a week in, and she had already shed a lot of that, but there were a couple of places where he said, ‘That just doesn’t sound like Julia at all.’ Julia’s so much of the earth, she’s just so grounded – those were probably Marlo lines,” Pierini said.
DiPietro, who happened to be in San Diego working on a new project, even popped up to Sacramento to see a preview and visit his old B Street friends before heading back to New York.
Pierini, who knew DiPietro from “The Virgin Weeps” days, said it was great to see an old friend but still odd to watch the preview together. “Anytime I was taking a note, I knew he was taking a note,” Pierini said. “He couldn’t have been more gracious. He was really quite happy, and I believed him. He went out of his way to praise our company.”
Although all the actors and the director are different in this production from the Off-Broadway production, Brothers said the play works in the same way on audiences.
“There was a lot of gasping (at revelations in the story) in New York, and I wondered if it would be the same in Sacramento and it is,” Brothers said.
“There’s big surprise in the play, a couple of big surprises, and it doesn’t happen very often in plays that you’re really surprised about something,” she said. “The audience gets to go on a ride where they think it’s going one way and it gets derailed, and that’s good for them.”
Clever Little Lies
What: B Street Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Joe DiPietro’s Off-Broadway comedy “Clever Little Lies.” With Julia Brothers, Rich Hebert, Tara Sissom, and Jason Kuykendall. Dave Pierini directs.
When: Continues at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays through July 31.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Tickets: $26-$38, $8 student rush