Longboat Key playwright gains NYC acclaim

Philip Hall is better known in theater circles around the country than locally

mclear@bradenton.comSeptember 29, 2013 

He's been a playwright for decades, and has had more success than most. His plays have been produced all around the country and even abroad, from high schools and colleges to the best professional regional theaters, including American Stage in St. Petersburg.

Philip Hall, who lives in Longboat Key, is notoriously low-key about his accomplishments. His friends complain that they never know what he has going on because he doesn't like to talk about his new play opening in California or in Canada. He'd rather hear about you.

Still, when he's asked about his new musical "Life on the Mississippi," he can barely contain his excitement.

"I'm 62 years old and I finally have a play opening in New York!" Hall exclaims as he breaks into a wide grin over lunch at the Yummy House in Sarasota. "How the hell do you think I feel?"

Actually, over the next few weeks Hall has two plays opening in Manhattan. There's "No Sugar," a 10-minute play opening as part of an evening of short works at the Collective on Oct. 9, and then "Life on the Mississippi," a full-length musical based on Mark Twain's memoir, which opens its three-week run at the WorkShop Theater Nov. 1.

WorkShop Theater takes plays from nascent stages on paper, through a series of readings, talkbacks, workshops, small productions with virtually no budget, and onto full-scale productions. In the case of Hall's musical, the process took three years, culminating in that Nov. 1 opening.

Director Susanna Frazer praised both the Hall's book and his songs.

"Oh, I love this play," said Susanna Frazer. "I think this play is a gem, an absolute gem."

Frazer, whose father Dan Frazer was a well-known character actor, most famous for being Telly Savalas' boss on "Kojak," said people who saw the scaled-down production loved Hall's music so much they kept asking when they could buy the soundtrack album.

"We have a live onstage band, which is unusual for us," she said. "We have some of New York's best singers and musicians. This is going to be wonderful."

Hall's almost as thrilled about his little 10-minute play that opens a little further uptown. He's most

ly excited about that one, though, because it stars Chris Sullivan, who does the voice of the camel in those Geico commercials about "hump day"

Hall's resume lists 17 plays, and he's left off some of the early ones that he wasn't especially proud of. There was a play he wrote when he was a theater student at the University of South Florida in Tampa that has never been staged, and a musical called "Swamp Witch" that he wrote with his erstwhile writing partner Lee Ahlin and that was only staged once, in the 1980s. That production "was not a happy experience," Hall said, but the show had some great elements and he's thinking of reworking it.

But even though Hall and his wife, Leslie, an award-winning art quilter, have lived on Longboat Key for decades, and his plays have been staged all around the country, not too many local theater-goers know his work. His shows are more likely to be produced in Nova Scotia than in Bradenton.

"He should be well-known down there," Frazer said. "But he's the kind of person who's more interested in the work than in self-promotion."

Probably his most popular play locally was his first, except for that college attempt. "Children of the Day," written by Hall and Ahlin, is a musical about a group of fourth-grade students facing their first day of school. It had several hit productions in Tampa and St. Petersburg in the '80s and '90s. Manatee Community College staged the show in 2007. Theater companies continue to express interest in it, but Hall says it's "dated" because of pop-culture references to the Beatles and other mid-'60s phenomena.

Both Hall and Ahlin credited the show's success to the ease of their collaboration.

"I think we inspired each other," Hall said. "The motivation was to make the other one laugh."

Ahlin agreed.

"He's a very generous collaborator," he said. "The artistic environment was very, very easy."

Hall and Ahlin did several more shows together, including a musical version of "Beauty and the Beast" that was first staged in Gainesville and later at American Stage.

Lately, though, Hall's a solo playwright, and he concentrates his efforts largely on works that he enters into 10-minute play competitions, a burgeoning trend in theater across North America. He wins a lot of them with his short comic works. One of his latest is "Customer Service," about a man who's trying to have his cable service ended but ends up talking to a flirtatious women from the cable company. It's inspired by the telephone sketches of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

"I'm basically a comedy sketch writer these days," he said.

He also wrote a full-length musical based on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" that a California company recently toured around the Pacific Rim.

Director Frazer said she's surprised Hall's work isn't better known. Even if Hall's not comfortable with self-promotion, she said, his work should find an audience.

"I read Twain's 'Life on the Mississippi' and it's as if Phil has channeled Mark Twain," she said. "I can't tell where Mark Twain's writing stops and Phil Hall's writing begins."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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