A good thriller is hard to find.
“They’re just so rare,” said Michael Rafkin, who directs a cast of six in the two-act, real-time thriller “SEAL” at the Theater Project in Brunswick, opening Friday. “They’re rare because they’re hard to write, and this is a good one. … I want people to come to the theater and sit on the edge of their seats.”
The Theater Project production is a premiere of an original script by Clay Graybeal, an on-again, off-again playwright who also is a professor in the school of social work at the University of New England.
He got the idea for the play when he worked at a psychiatric hospital as part of his student training in New Jersey decades ago. He admitted a young man who was experiencing dissociative disorders, where he lost time for minutes, hours and days. He claimed to be a Navy SEAL, who specialized in black-op assassinations and was on the run from the government and in fear of his life.
Skeptical, the hospital staff checked out his story and learned that he wasn’t telling the truth. He wasn’t a SEAL. He had received some training, but washed out of the program because of a nervous breakdown. When confronted with this information, the patient asked, “What did you think they were going to tell you?”
That’s where Graybeal began writing. The story hinges on whether this guy is the victim of conspiracy or whether he’s mentally unstable and actually very dangerous to himself and to others. “Is he crazy or is he who he says he is,” asks Graybeal.
That’s the big reveal in the play, and we’ll let audiences find out for themselves.
Rafkin hopes to take audiences on a white-knuckle ride. It’s a fast-paced theatrical thriller, starring Keith Anctil and Elisabeth Hardcastle with Robbie Harrison, Thomas Handel, Walt Dunlap and Burke Brimmer. The play opens the 47th season at the Theater Project and the 25th season for the theater’s executive director, Wendy Poole.
The heart of the play is the lead character’s moral compass, which speaks to the nation’s confusion surrounding moral issues, Rafkin said. “It’s a political play in terms of its morality,” he said. “But it’s not left, center, right.”
During an interview, Rafkin and Graybeal both spoke about how much they admired the Bourne series of spy movies, which tell a similar story of a CIA assassin suffering from memory loss, because of the pacing of the films and the depth of the characters. They aim for the theatrical equivalent, where audiences are held in suspense and the story is revealed one scene at a time. Graybeal said a good thriller should examine real issues with sympathetic characters, and he thinks he’s created both with “SEAL.”
Graybeal and Rafkin have a long association. They worked together on Graybeal’s first play, “The Calling,” which he wrote 20 years ago about a burned-out social worker. Two years later, he wrote “Shadow Souls” about a woman living in a shelter. The Rocky Coast Radio Theater Group performed his “Tumbledown Valley” and “It’s A Wicked Good Life,” both of which were broadcast on Maine Public.
He started “SEAL” many times over the years, and has given it two readings – and always kept talking about it with Rafkin throughout.
“SEAL” by Clay Graybeal, Opens Friday, runs through Oct. 14. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Theater Project, 14 School St., Brunswick, %20, $15 seniors and students, $10 for 12 and under kids younger than 2 are free if they sit on a patron’s lap. Thursday shows are pay what you want. theaterproject.com or (207) 729-8584
Portland Stage opens its season with “Ben Butler,” which tells the story of a runaway slave who seeks sanctuary at a Union fort in Virginia during the Civil War. The general in charge, after whom the play is named, has to decide how to handle the situation of the runaway slave and his decision bears historical consequence. It’s part biography, part drama and – surprise – part comedy.
The story has local resonance. Butler, who served as Massachusetts’s 33rd governor in the 1880s, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, graduated from Colby College in 1838. He was also a Civil War major general and found himself in charge of Fort Monroe in Virginia in 1861. While there, he declined to return fugitive slaves to their owners, which later became Union policy. The play is set in the early days of the Civil War, soon after Virginia seceded from the Union.
“Ben Butler” is based on that historical moment. Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, said the theater is the last regional theater with the rights to produce the play before a Broadway production.
Actor Ron Orbach plays the title role. His name is familiar. He was in the movie “Clueless” in 1995 (as the DMV tester) and has a long history of stage acting. This is his first time working with Portland Stage. “I’ve been around a long time – three or four decades I’ve been doing this – and I had heard about Portland Stage. Some of my friends worked here and spoke favorably,” he said, “and I love lobster rolls.”
He also loves the role of Benjamin Butler and the writing of the playwright, Richard Strand. “It’s written with humor, and it also has a good literary feel to it and an intelligence, and it’s about actual events – significant events that most of us don’t know about.”
The play tells a tiny slice of the life of Butler, who was complicated and equally as celebrated as reviled. He grew up with a deformity, and suffered indignities and hazing, which made him sympathetic for the downtrodden. He put all of his time into education and became a lawyer, so he could fight for underdogs and disadvantaged people.
“But he was known as a real SOB as a lawyer, a little Trumpian. Winning was everything,” Orbach said. “He was a complicated, flawed guy, like any good character.”
When faced with a difficult situation during the war, Butler did the right thing. He went against the grain and against the law, and his bold decision led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the months that followed. Orbach called Butler “an accidental hero. But I do think he ultimately was heroic. He took a risk doing what he did, and I think this ends up being the most significant thing he did in his life.”
Griffin Carpenter wanted to be challenged right out of college, and he got his wish. He had just graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was “frantically trying to find work” when he came across an audition notice for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Good Theater in Portland. It was too good and too challenging a role to let the opportunity pass. He saw the play in London in 2015, and it’s been on his mind since.
“I think anybody would be stupid not to take this role,” said Carpenter, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “It’s definitely the most difficult role, or at least the most hands-on role, I have ever taken on.”
“Ben Butler,” through Oct. 21, Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland; $13 to $46; portlandstage.org or (207) 774-1083.
Good Theater opens its 17th season with the play Oct. 3, and it’s on stage through Oct. 28 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. Brian P. Allen, Good Theater’s co-founder and its artistic director, directs the play, which won five Tony, six Drama Desk and five Outer Critics’ Circle awards, including the best play from all three.
Carpenter plays 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a high-functioning boy on the autism spectrum. He’s talented in math and does well enough in school, but sensory problems and issues with anxiety lead to panic attacks. The play revolves around the death of a neighbor’s dog and Boone’s decision to solve the mystery in a Sherlockian manner. The investigation into the mystery leads to discoveries he didn’t expect and leaves him fearful for his life.
It’s a challenging role because people expect certain behaviors of people with autism, said Carpenter, who grew up doing community theater around Portland. He has to deliver on people’s expectations for the show to succeed. After he was cast, he spent much of his summer putting in the work. “People are expecting accuracy,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time watching and observing a lot of autistic meltdowns and hearing from autistic voices and trying to figure out how technically to represent that on stage.”
Allen is impressed with his lead. “He’s doing a super job,” he said of Carpenter. “This is a Herculean role, and we’ve been working weekly through the summer to tackle the part.”
The Broadway production was big and technical. The Good Theater version will be far simpler, with a sharp focus on the story. Carpenter is eager to see how a big play translates to a small stage. “The way it’s written and the way it’s been performed up until now, it’s been a spectacle with a large amount of technical choreography, lights and bonanza – like a musical without music. At first, it was hard for me to imagine how we were going to put it on in the St. Lawrence Arts Center, but it’s been an exciting process, how to translate it for a smaller space and smaller cast. It’s been extremely rewarding to root ourselves in the script and find the intimacy in the story.”
Good Theater’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Oct. 3-28, St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland; $25 to $32; goodtheater.com or (207) 835-0895.