The Screenwriter’s Daughter, the current Vineyard Playhouse production written and directed by Larry Mollin, is more than a performance — it’s a resurrection of history.
The play takes place during the last day of the life of Ben Hecht, the American screenwriter responsible for films such as Gone With the Wind, Some Like it Hot, A Farewell to Arms and Wuthering Heights, to name just a few. Two of Mr. Hecht’s screenplays won Academy Awards. He was also a Zionist and civil rights activist. But for all of his accomplishments, his most incendiary creation was perhaps not a film. It was his daughter, Jenny.
In Mr. Mollin’s play, Jenny is played by Ella Dershowitz, a recent graduate of Yale University.
“I love Jenny,” Ms. Dershowitz said. “I admire her, not for her ultimate fate, but for her energy and intensity.”
Jenny burned brightly during her career as an actress for the Living Theatre, a traveling troupe that shattered the conventions of traditional stage acting to fight for social change. She died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose.
The play is set on the eve of Jenny’s planned departure for England, where she would start her career with the traveling Living Theatre. It was April 17, 1964 — also the day before Ben Hecht died of a heart attack in his New York city apartment at the age of 70.
Mr. Mollin’s inspiration for the play came from real life.
“I saw Jenny perform in New York, and I was just infatuated with her,” he said. He also knew of Ben Hecht, and felt there was a story to tell regarding Mr. Hecht’s relationship with his daughter. The play embodies the dynamic the two shared.
“I wanted to create a play in two styles,” said Mr. Mollin. “One is the fast-dialogue characteristic of Ben Hecht films, and the other is the experience of the Living Theatre.” This tension binds the play. “They’re both fighting for the audience,” said Mr. Mollin.
Fighting is not just a figurative term, either, in terms of the performance. This past weekend, in the second act, the actors leaped off the stage and demanded audience interaction, while onstage Ben Hecht, played by Ken Baltin, screamed, “The audience doesn’t want to participate!”
But for all of the raised voices and disagreements between Mr. Hecht and Jenny, the heart of The Screenwriter’s Daughter is the love story that occurs between the rebellious young woman and her famous father who spoiled her with wealth. Jenny will not be confined to the safety of her father’s luxurious life in New York, but cannot break free without his blessing.
The cast consists of four actors playing five characters. In addition to Ella Dershowitz and Ken Baltin, David Henry Gerson, a television and off-Broadway actor, plays Jenny’s boyfriend and fellow member of the Living Theatre, Steve. Local actress Kristina Kinsman Maynard plays May Mountain, another Living Theatre actress and Mr. Hecht’s typist/mistress.
Mr. Mollin said he would like to increase the cast size if the show expands, but he also knows that he has the perfect father/daughter duo and supporting characters.
“Ella is the same age that Jenny was, and has so many of the same characteristics,” said Mr. Mollin. “She can relate to the character. [Ella] is also the daughter of a powerful, important man.” Mr. Mollin also compared Ms. Dershowitz’s commitment to her art to that of Jenny’s.
Mr. Baltin can also access his character’s psyche from experience.
“Ken has a daughter himself, and so he understands the emotions that go with raising a daughter, especially one coming of age,” said Mr. Mollin. Mr. Baltin is a man with experience in many genres, just like Ben Hecht himself. Mr. Mollin said that Mr. Baltin has skills for comedy and drama, “and can put them together in his performances.”
Referring to the rest of the cast, Mr. Mollin said, “They are all so important. David [Henry Gerson] really embodies the spirit of the Living Theatre, and Kristina Kinsman Maynard hopped right in and became a member of the ensemble, and plays two characters.”
The remaining showtimes for the play are July 12, 13 and 14, beginning at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school. Tickets are available at vineyardplayhouse.org and at the door.