A prison doctor’s encounter with a young man who shot and killed 17 people at a shopping mall is at the center of Broken, a new play getting an Equity showcase staging April 9-26 in Manhattan. Playwright-actor David Meyers plays the killer opposite Michael Pemberton as the shrink who takes an interest in the case.
“Kevin McFadden hasn’t spoken to anyone since he killed 17 people at a shopping mall three weeks ago,” according to production notes. “But when a prison doctor takes an unexpected interest in his case, Kevin decides to meet with him — revealing a troubled past that unites them both.”
“We learn a lot about Kevin’s past,” Meyers told me. “In terms of his motives, we do learn about them — and the play is finally satisfying to me on that account. For a long time, I simply thought there was no way to fully grasp his motives, but I am really happy with the progress we’ve made in revising the script in the past few months.”
He added, “I’m not sure if people will be satisfied by what they hear. I don’t think there is a satisfying answer. And it’s hard to answer the question of why someone follows through on these horrible thoughts (because we know that many people have similar thoughts and don’t act on them). But I do think the audience can take things away at the end of this piece.”
Performances will play Shetler Studios Theater on West 54th Street. The play was previously seen in readings at New York’s Project Y Theatre Company and the Payomet Performing Arts Center on Cape Cod. It was developed with help from Project Y and The Abingdon Theatre Company.
Daisy Walker directs. The play also features Alex Ashrafi (The Barrow Group, Edison Valley Playhouse, Playhouse 22, Rutgers University) as Officer Falco.
Pemberton, who plays Dr. Palmer, is a New York City actor/songwriter/singer known for playing private detective Malcolm on TV’s “Damages.” His Broadway credits include The Farnsworth Invention, I’m Not Rappaport, Not About Nightingales, Mamma Mia, Picnic and Hedda Gabler. I saw his excellent work in the early ’90s when he was a company member of the Hilberry Theatre, the graduate rep program of Wayne State University in Detroit.
Meyers’ plays have been read and performed Off-Broadway by Abingdon Theatre Company, Platform Group, Project Y, Naked Angels, at the Lark Play Development Center, and at professional theatres in New Jersey, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and New Mexico. As an actor he has performed at Off-Broadway’s Abingdon Theatre Company, Project Y, Nylon Fusion Theatre, The Actors Studio, New Georges, and elsewhere. He’s a Fort Lee, NJ, native.
Daisy Walker also directed Meyers in John Logan’s Red at Payomet PAC on Cape Cod. Read excerpts from his full-length and short plays at DavidActs.com.
Walker has directed in New York and regionally. From 2007-2009, she was assistant director on Jersey Boys for Broadway, the tour and regional productions. Prior to that she was artistic associate at Classic Stage Company. Regional credits include The Guthrie Theater Lab and La Jolla Playhouse. She has directed extensively on Cape Cod: seven productions on the Julie Harris Stage at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and three productions at Payomet Performing Arts Center in Massachusetts. She assistant-directed Radio City Music Hall’s Sinatra, His Music, His World, His Way; and Broadway’s The Farnsworth Invention; Dracula, The Musical; and Jackie, An American Life. She is the 2005 recipient of SSDC Sir John Gielgud Fellowship and is a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop. She earned an MFA from UCSD.
Shetler Studios Theater is at 244 W. 54th St., 12th Floor. Performances of Broken play 8 PM Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 PM Sundays April 9-26, plus 8 PM April 13, 15, 21, 22 at 8 PM.
The Broken production team includes Emily C. Rolston (stage manager), Kevin Judge (set design), Patricia Nichols (lighting design), Dina Epshteyn (assistant director) and Janet Bentley (dramaturg/play development).
David Meyers fielded some questions in between rehearsals.
Can you share the moment that you first had a glimmer of the idea for Broken?
David Meyers: Shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre — and a few other mass shootings — the news reports all talked about the social difficulties these shooters experienced, often giving examples of the hard times they had both as children and as teenagers/young adults. And despite how horrific and inexcusable their crimes were, I did feel some pity for them on that level. Many of these shooters are not sociopaths with no regard for human life. They are bitter, broken people. Surely, they didn’t want things to end like this either.
At that point in my life, I was dealing with some typical frustrations of life and a career in the arts. And I remember, one night in particular, I was really frustrated and felt like nothing was going right. I thought, “I could see how someone could become so desperate they might want to do something like this.” And that’s how the seed was planted. I think all of us, on some level, can relate to Kevin’s experiences. And that was the idea for the play from that first moment: to help us see that some of these shooters are not monsters. That’s not to excuse what they did or make any justification for it — there is no justification.
In fact, the play has deviated from that initial seed somewhat. While the play does allow you to sympathize with Kevin, it now leaves you with a slightly more disturbing and less sympathetic (but more accurate) reason of why Kevin ended up killing 17 people at a shopping mall.
Obviously, the media is filled with horrifying stories of madmen with guns. Did one, especially, inspire this play?
David Meyers: Last year — right before we did a reading on Cape Cod — Elliot Rodger killed numerous people at the UCSB campus in California. He made a video right before the act. I showed it to Daisy (our director), and we were both in shock. It truly felt like Kevin (the shooter in our play) had made that video. We didn’t change things to make Kevin similar to Elliot Rodger (again — the character is not based on any real life model — in case some lawyers try to come after us), but that video showed me I was on the right path.
What sort of research did you do on the behavior of psychiatrists? Criminals?
David Meyers: For the first few drafts, I did absolutely no research. I just tried to explore that seed in my mind… After I had a version I was pretty happy with, I started reading a lot of articles. Many of them confirmed the things I had written (which I think many people would find intuitive anyway) — but they also had some concepts and phrases (“a spiraling of grievances,” “grievance collectors”) that were helpful to me as I refined the play. We also did have some mental health professionals who read the script and attended readings, and that was also very helpful to the process.
Did you specifically write this as a vehicle for you and your strengths as an actor? Are your other plays meant as projects for you?
David Meyers: This is the first play of mine that I have acted in, besides one small reading in New Jersey and a one-man show (mocking one-man shows) that a few companies in New York City have generously produced. I originally started writing as a way to help meet more people in the theatre community, but always considered myself an actor first. Thanks to the help of some fantastic people and fantastic companies (the first of which was The Platform Group), playwriting sort of became its own separate thing.
In fact, some people still see me only as a writer, even though I am working professionally as an actor, have representation, etc. When I originally wrote Broken, I did think I would play the part. But as we did readings, I somehow convinced myself that if I played Kevin, it would undermine its credibility as a play. Then my best friend woke me up and said, “you started writing to give your acting career a boost, now you’ve written this great part and you’re not going to play it. What are you thinking?” He was right.
I don’t have any other plays with parts for me, but I was still worried people might see this as a vanity project. Though of course if it’s done well, it’s no more a vanity project than Hedwig, Bogosian’s plays, and so many more. That’s why it was essential to me that we had a great team to work on it if I was going to act in it.
How much is mental illness a part of this story? Are conclusions drawn about Kevin?
David Meyers: That relates to what I mentioned [before] — about trying to figure out the difference between those who fantasize about committing an act like this and those who go through with it. I do think there are elements of mental illness at play here, though in some cases of real life shootings (Sandy Hook, for example), mental illness is a bigger factor than it is in Broken.
What’s the doctor’s goal in the play?
David Meyers: He is genuinely interested in helping Kevin and figuring out why Kevin committed the shooting, but he also has some ulterior motives, which is the play’s engine. I don’t want to give away too much…
Beyond telling a compelling story, what motivated you? Do you have a social-justice goal with the play?
David Meyers: One question that keeps coming up in the aftermath of these attacks is “how can we stop these people?” There’s a line in the play towards the end that’s gotten an audible reaction in every reading we’ve done. But I don’t think the answer that I provide is what most people want to hear.
That being said, my answer as to what we can do to stop these acts is to go out of our way to show kindness and compassion to other people. There are tens of thousands of people who feel like Kevin. Many of them will never commit an act like this, but what harm will it do to be nicer to them? And perhaps by extending some kindness to people in pain we’ll be able to stop the next Kevin before he goes down this horrible path.
What have director Daisy Walker and dramaturg Janet Bentley brought to the table?
David Meyers: Although Daisy is the reason we are doing this production — and she has given so much to this play — Janet is the reason there was even a play to show Daisy.
I met Janet through a fantastic company called Nylon Fusion, run by Ivette Dumeng – who has done so much for so many people, including me. (If you’re noticing a theme here, women have given me almost all of my opportunities in the theatre!) I showed Janet the play and she said that while she saw some of its weaknesses, she saw my vision for the play, loved it, and thought I could achieve what I set out to do.
Janet helped me pull out the heart of the play from that draft, and then did so a few more times on subsequent drafts. Without Janet, there would be no play. Janet and I got busy with other projects and haven’t worked as closely on the play over the past six months – during which time I have made some big changes, but all of those changes are in service of the themes and the play that Janet and I shared a common vision of. She was and is a master dramaturge, and I am so grateful to her.
In rehearsal, Daisy has come up with about ten solutions to things I was unhappy with. When we were doing previous readings, I thought, “Daisy is so talented, how come she’s not seeing some of these issues?” She later told me, “I saw them, but I didn’t know how to fix them. Now I do.”
I’ve been very open to changes. The most important thing to me is that the actors are comfortable with the language, and that the dialogue and action gets the point across.
How is Broken different from your other work? Do you find yourself consistently attracted to specific subjects/moods as a writer, or are you eclectic?
David Meyers: Well – I initially got my start with 10-minute plays, almost all of which are comedies. Needless to say, Broken isn’t a laugh riot. But as far as full-lengths go, I’m definitely interested in more serious affairs.
I wish I could sustain some of the comedy in my 10-minute plays for a full length. But I think I naturally gravitate towards plays with big ideas and heft. I honestly love doing both, but I think this play will be an eye-opener for some people.