Hardest-Working Man in Show Business
If he isn't taking tickets and overseeing productions until all hours at the EDGE/ Theater in South Beach, where he's artistic director, then Jim Tommaney is up at 6:30 a.m. doing his bookkeeping at his Fort Lauderdale apartment. Or he's directing rehearsals for a new play at the Studio Theater in Fort Lauderdale. Or he's writing a new play (he penned eight last year), or producing one at the Hollywood Boulevard Theater, or casting, or madly driving up and down I-95 in an effort to keep his various enterprises going full-tilt.
Tommaney also acts and designs sets. Oh yeah, and in 1995 he opened the 50-seat EDGE/Theater.
Yet in person he looks neither tired nor even close to his 69 years of age, and the twinkle in his eyes belies his rather priestly appearance. So what makes him tick in the face of local critics who often maul his productions -- and at a time in life when most people are leaning back in their loungers and exercising their remote controls?
For starters he's a workaholic. "I've always been this way," he says with a shrug.
Another reason is his obsession with all kinds of writing, which began even before he won the Yale Creative Writing Prize while a student at Yale College. Tommaney came rather late to play-writing, however, when he was making a living as an advertising executive in New York.
"In 1973 I had this sudden urge to write a play," he relates, "so I sat down and wrote one in a weekend and sent it to Joe Papp [a Broadway and off-Broadway producer renowned for his love of discovering new playwrights]. Although he didn't produce it, he did ask me to meet with him and encouraged me to write more. I figured writing plays might be a good fit."
In addition to obsessiveness and a speedy metabolism, could Tommaney's monklike sense of mission also arise from the arduous nature of producing original theater in South Florida? Quite possibly.
"There is no indigenous theater scene in Dade County -- except for me," he says without a trace of false modesty. "Area Stage, which has done very good work, lost its lease on Lincoln Road last September and now does only occasional productions. The Coconut Grove Playhouse is a disgrace. Jackie Gleason [Theater features] just mediocre touring companies. There are, of course, a couple of local lights. Michael McKeever has done some good productions. And Roberto Prestigiacomo is a wonderful director and very good playwright."
For his part Tommaney tries to fill the gap with his own edgy productions, plays in which the raw language, raw characters, and frequently raw production values revolve around themes that revel in psychosexual jousting, ambivalence, and innuendo. Add some occasional nudity, and it's no surprise that, in such plays as Juggernaut!, Tiger Rose, and Snake, we are a long way from either the drawing rooms of Oscar Wilde and A.J. Gurney or the kitchen sinks of William Gibson and John Osborne. Tommaney loves outsiders, and the plots of his plays are full of the longing, insecurity, wit, and force of will that propel these people through their unusually difficult lives.
Tommaney counts among his inspirations Shakespeare (for "his breadth of humanity and breathtaking poetry"), Ivy Compton-Burnett (for "her novels completely written in dialogue"), William Faulkner (for "his interior monologues"), and Ernest Hemingway ("his succinctness stops my redundancy").
Tommaney says he reads all of his characters out loud as he writes, "and if an actor finds a line difficult to say, I change it."
Tommaney won't get that opportunity with his next production, which opens at the EDGE/Theater February 18: He didn't write this one. But Toyer, by Gardner McKay, of '50s TV-series fame, could very well be vintage Tommaney.
"It's the first of a trilogy of thrillers," he explains, "with a great plot: a battle of wits between a woman's shrink and a younger man who may be a neighbor, an actor, or a rapist -- or all three."
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