Longtime followers of Florida Stage may recall Peter Sagal, whose plays Denial and What to Say were produced in the 1990s by the now-defunct theater company that specialized in new American works. These days, however, Sagal is more widely known as the host of the popular National Public Radio current events quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
For the past 20 years, Sagal has put playwriting on hold to pursue his radio career. But Florida Stage’s Louis Tyrrell, who now runs FAU Theatre Lab, a professional company on the university’s Boca Raton campus, has lured him back to the theater. At least temporarily.
Beginning Dec. 1, Theatre Lab will present Sagal’s dark comedy, Most Wanted, a play he wrote in 1996, yet has never been produced. “I sent it out to plenty of places, but nobody wanted to do it and I don’t know why,” he says. “I thought it was pretty good.”
So he put the script in a drawer and did not give it another thought until Tyrrell called him up early this year, asking if he had anything for Theatre Lab’s spring reading series. Sagal offered him Most Wanted, about a pair of doting grandparents who kidnap their grandchild when they are allowed insufficient opportunities to see her. The audience – many of whom are grandparents themselves – loved the play and suddenly Sagal was back in the playwright’s seat.
As he puts it, “It feels like one of those spy movies in which the guy’s been retired for years and all of a sudden the phone that never rings, rings. And it’s ‘We need you back for one last job.’” And yes, he knows that invariably means the spy will be killed before long.
When he accepted the radio gig, Sagal never expected it to last two decades.
“Basically, I thought it would be a fun thing to do as I pursued my real career that would lead me to glory. Y’know, I’ll do this radio show for a while, and then I’d go on to win my Pulitzer and an Oscar and so forth,” for his writing. “And it didn’t turn out that way.”
As much as he loved writing for the stage, NPR allows him to play in a much bigger pond. “We now have 5 million listeners. More people listen to one episode of ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ than have ever seen my plays,” he says. “So it’s a huge audience and I have a relationship with them that I have come to treasure.”
When he sent Most Wanted to Tyrrell, Sagal says he had not read it in about 17 years. “Some parts about it surprised me, some parts about it disappointed me, some parts about it I really liked, some parts I didn’t like at all,” he concedes. “Some parts reminded me of the way I used to think, and don’t anymore. Some parts reminded me of the way I think now.”
Rather than make major revisions, Sagal felt it was important to keep it the work of his former self. “I made some cuts,” he allows. “I thought at some points the characters went on a little bit much. Sometimes characters were saying things that I was saying and making them say against their will. But I didn’t change who the characters are, I didn’t change the ending or any plot elements. I tweaked it.”
After 21 years, Sagal can recall the kernel of an idea that got him writing Most Wanted. “At that time, my niece had been born, my parents’ first grandchild. They really wanted to see their granddaughter, all the time. But my sister-in-law and my brother were not so enthused about those visits. So there was some tension.
“And I went, ‘What if these grandparents just took the kid and ran? Then what?’” he wondered. “Well, the first thing you have to say is ‘My parents would never do that,’ so you have to come up with characters who might, who have reasons.”
The grandparents in the play, Frank and Doris, make a beeline for Florida with the child in tow, offering Sagal the opportunity to satirize the denizens of the Sunshine State. “Like all nice Jewish boys from New Jersey, I had spent time in Florida. We used to have annual vacations down here. We’d rent a condo over in Sarasota,” he says.
As to the site of the play’s climax, he adds, “I’ve never been to Key West. But around that time my then mother-in-law had been down there and they visited the Little White House,” President Truman’s winter retreat. “That interested me, as literally the end of the road, and I thought that would be an interesting place to end the play.”
Sagal wrote Most Wanted a couple of years before he became a parent himself. Now that he has his own offspring, he looks at Frank and Doris differently. “I have to say weirdly, I actually have more sympathy for them now than I did initially, as I become them.”
There are some wildly funny sequences in Most Wanted, but underneath the humor is “fear of death,” says the playwright. “That’s what really came out to me when I looked at it again. These people think they’re upset at their daughter. They think they’re doing it to benefit their grandchild. What they’re really doing is running away from the fact that their lives are done. Their lives are played out. But they’re trying to undo it. As they say, ‘Maybe this time we won’t screw it up.’”
Sagal has been in South Florida to be a resource during rehearsals. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a rehearsal room. This is a world premiere and until it happens, everything is in flux,” he says. “If an idea to improve the play occurs to me, I’ll pursue it. Or if the actors turn to me and say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ I’ll think of something that makes more sense for the characters to do.”
Although this was not why he wrote the play, Sagal notes that “there aren’t enough plays, I think, about the problems of old people. Most plays and movies are about the young. And older actors are an amazing resource, they know a lot of things. And it’s fun to write parts for them.”
Still, when asked what the appeal of Most Wanted is, he responds without hesitation, “It’s an amusing romp about the inevitability of death. Say that.”
MOST WANTED, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Dec. 1-17. $35. 561-297-6124.