The idea for Benched came to me some time after I met a wonderful African American actress in Sacramento, Myrtle Stephens.Â At the time, Myrtle was also the director of Celebration Arts in Sacramento.Â The first time I met Myrtle she grabbed me and held me close, proclaiming her admiration for all writers.Â Before releasing me, she made me promise to write something for her.Â I agreed on the spot.
Myrtle was a dynamo, full of optimism and energy.Â Myrtle was charming.Â She was also direct.Â She could clear away the clutter and get to what was standing in your way.Â She helped anyone who came to her.Â She was at her best helping people deal with situations and choices that cause regret.Â She was interested in forgiveness and redemption and helping people make a fresh start in life.
Unfortunately Myrtle passed away before I had even the kernel of an idea.Â For a long period of time after Myrtle died, I felt I had let her down.
As I thought of Myrtle’s last moments I considered my own mortality.Â Would I be greeted by a black void or would someone be there to guide me on some new mystical journey?Â I remember thinking:Â “If I have a guide, I hope it is Myrtle.”Â It was at that very moment that the idea for Benched came to me, and Myrtle would be there, as a benevolent Angel of Death.
I was still developing the piece when I got a call from a producer in Los Angeles who was looking for a play for Jack Klugman to do, possibly to include Klugman’s old friend Tony Randall, with whom Klugman had starred in the ’70s television series, The Odd Couple. Immediately, I switched directions.Â The black female character was re-written to be a 70-year-old man, and Benched became a play about two men in their 70s, on a bench in a New York City park, looking back on life.Â I even renamed one of the main characters Randall.Â I worried that I was letting Myrtle down again, but then I realized that Myrtle hadn’t necessarily been asking me to write a part for her in a play, but simply to write the kind of play she would love and embrace.
As things often go in show business, Klugman ended up choosing a different project.Â So to see if there was interest elsewhere, I began sending Benched around to friends, including to actor Ed Asner.Â He recommended the playÂ to Peggy Shannon, then the artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company.Â Peggy agreed to hear the play read, after which she made some suggestions.Â Changes were made, and a second reading was done as a fundraiser with Ed Asner taking a lead.Â The reading was very successful and Benched was added to the Sacramento season that year.
With the play scheduled for production, I immediately called my dear friend, character actor Eddie Jones, and asked if he would consider spending two months in Sacramento doing Benched.Â To my great pleasure, he was willing to give up potentially more lucrative work, and agreed to do the play.Â How could I have been so lucky?Â Perhaps Myrtle had intervened from the beyond and given Eddie a bit of a nudge (on my behalf).
Fast forward 10 years.Â Benched seemed permanently, well, benched.Â No matter who you are, it’s very difficult these days to get even successful plays a second production.Â So the play sat on my shelf until one day recently when a call came from old pal Eddie Jones, now with the Interact Theatre Company, to ask if Interact could produce Benched. I was surprised and delighted to have the opportunity to give this play a second life.Â Someone must have been looking out for me and the play.Â Myrtle?
Benched, Interact Theatre Company at Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo 91601. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through March 24. Tickets: $25. www.interactla.org. 818-765-8732.
***All Benched production photos by Alan Naggar
Playwright Richard Broadhurst is a 40-year veteran of theater, film, and television. His plays have been produced in numerous theaters around the country.Â Broadhurst has been a guest playwright at the William Inge Theatre Festival, and has also been a finalist at the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. He has been commissioned by performer John Davidson to write a one-man show about Sen. Edward Kennedy, and he was asked to write a one-woman show about Lillian Carter and invited to Plains, GA to meet with President Carter.Â Broadhurst has also written extensively for film and has had several projects optioned by DreamWorks, Revolution Studio, and Happy Madison Films. With the encouragement of friends, Broadhurst has adapted Benched into a screenplay.