NEW YORK, July 26 (UPI) -- Aspiring playwright Thomas McCormack retired as chief executive officer of St. Martin's Press, the eminent book publishing firm, in 1999 to write his first full-length play, and the result is an engrossing comedy titled "Endpapers" now playing at the Variety Arts Theater.
It is about what McCormack knows best -- book publishing and the power politics that goes on behind the scenes in a business that has recently been transformed from a gentleman's enterprise into a trophy possession of giant media conglomerates that care only for bottom line profits.
. The 70-year-old playwright seems to be saying that the industry no longer nurtures authors or produces first-rate literature. As an example, he introduces his audience to a mid-size book publishing firm, Maynard, solely owned and patriarchicly run by Joshua Maynard, now old and suffering a terminal illness but determined to pass the business on intact to his only child, Sara.
Sara isn't interested in running the firm first hand but through a chief executive officer whom she trusts to make the right decisions. There are two candidates for the job already on the staff -- Griff, who is honest, intelligent and modestly self-effacing, and Ted, who is trickily ambitious, intelligent and hugely egotistical. The staff is divided in its opinion of the two men.
When Daddy dies without actually naming either man his successor, Sara follows her best instincts and chooses Griff, who must make a success of Maynard or loose control of the firm to a bank that is calling in an old loan. Griff manages to do everything wrong and is tattled on to the bank by Ted who hopes to be named CEO when a bank officer, John Hope, takes over.
Hope does take over but under surprising circumstances that provides the play with a happy ending that seems somewhat contrived. But up until the last scene, "Endpapers" succeeds in weaving an enthralling, laugh-punctuated spell that makes it the best play to take an insider look at publishing since Join Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" a few seasons ago.
McCormack acquired and edited such diverse books as James Herriott"s "All Creatures Great and Small" and Tom Harris' "The Silence of the Lambs" while at St. Martin's Press, and he has a talent for creating diverse characters that shine in his delineation of Maynard's office staff and two of it authors.
There is Joshua Maynard's old pal and right hand man, Grover, who gave up a promising career as a novelist to become an editor who nurtures the firm's authors beyond their productive years. There isn't a greedy bone in his body, but there are plenty in the stridently feminine Kay Carson, who is involved in a secret deal with book club that sponsors fanatical tracts.
Cora McCarthy is just Kay's opposite, open in all her dealings, fair, and a leader in promoting Griff's interests. Ted's young assistant, Sheila, will never grow up to be Cora because she can be humiliated by her boss into taking part in his connivances. The two authors are right off the wall -- a macho film star named Ram Spencer who won't allow a word of his wordy manuscript to be edited and a Truman Capote-like literary blackmailer named Peter who dresses all-white like Tom Wolfe.
These roles come to hilarious and sometimes touching life in the hands of a topnotch cast under the faultless direction of Pamela Berlin, whose stage credits include "Steel Magnolias" and "The Cemetery Club." Tim Hopper is particularly good as the good-looking, fast-talking, not-to-be-trusted Ted, the kind of role actors kill for. His reluctant competitor, Griff, is acted with great sensitivity by Bruce McCarty.
Beth Dixon is delicious as the chicly attired Kay, who always wears a hat in the office and has gloves handy, and Pippa Pearthree is totally sympathetic as the rumpled, tousle-haired Cora, sharp-minded and razor-tongued. William Cain gives a towering performance as strong-willed Joshua Maynard and Neil Vipond is his perfect foil as the accommodating Grover.
Greg Salata would be intimidating if he weren't so funny as Ram and Oliver Wadsworth is fascinatingly abhorrent as the catty Peter. Shannon Burkett plays her big moments in the smallish role of Sheila well, and Maria Thayer makes the idealistic Sara Maynard admirable without making her as interesting as she might have been in her key role.
The extremely wide stage at Variety Arts has made it possible for set designer Neil Patel to present a half dozen company office spaces at once, connected by imaginary corridors and lit only when used by the actors by lighting designer Rui Rita. Amela Baksic's costumes sum up contemporary office wear in a white-collar business enterprise, spiced by an occasional witty touch.