Palm Beacher Laurence Leamer, a frequent biographer of the Kennedy clan, has transformed himself into a playwright with Rose, a one-woman work about the powerful and tragic family’s matriarch. It kicks off a four-play season at Boca Raton’s Mizner Park Cultural Center because its producer, Bill Spatz, went to the bathroom at the right time.
As he tells it, he was relieving himself at his golf club down here when a stranger at the next urinal struck up a conversation. “The guy next to me says, ‘Aren’t you the guy who’s doing some plays in Chicago?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I have a good friend, Larry Leamer, who wrote this play called ‘Rose.’ Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
It probably helped that Spatz considers himself a history buff, but he read and liked Leamer’s script, and went on to produce it in his summer hometown of Chicago. It went so well that Spatz then decided to transfer it down here as the kickoff of a four-play season, beginning Wednesday.
Leamer is a novice when it comes to playwriting, but he knows a good story when he comes upon it. “The thing about Rose, the reason I thought it was a good idea for a play, she’s the one person who knows the whole story of the Kennedys,” says Leamer. “She’s there for everything. I think you can understand her in a new way through this thing.”
It is a tale that essentially fell into his lap. One of the interviews he conducted as he was writing The Kennedy Women was with a former Life magazine reporter, Robert Coughlin, who had been hired to write Rose Kennedy’s autobiography. After Coughlin passed away, his widow invited Leamer to lunch in Sag Harbor.
“At the end of lunch, she said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ ” Leamer recalls. “She went back into a back room, and here were these leather boxes full of these tapes – 50 hours of tapes of Rose, plus many hours with the rest of the Kennedys.”
Dumbfounded, Leamer cleared his schedule and played them all. “I basically sat for a week and listened to all 50 hours. And then taking that and everything I knew about the Kennedys, I just got into her head and wrote the play.”
Why a play and not another book? “I’ve written books about every Kennedy except the Kennedy dog. Enough is enough,” he says with a laugh. “This just seemed to me to be the way to do it.”
He set the play a week after Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fateful automobile incident at Chappaquiddick, with Rose telling her family’s history to an unseen Coughlin. “The idea was using that as the device for her to go back and try to understand why all these tragedies, why all this happened to them,” explains Leamer.
If Rose were a book, Leamer’s work would be completed with its writing. With a play, he had to find a producer and test it out in readings. Thanks to the urinal summit, Spatz of Chicago’s Forum Productions mounted the show with actress Linda Reiter, who eventually won a Joseph Jefferson Award – the Windy City’s version of the Carbonells – for best actor in a solo performance.
Leamer was initially skeptical of Reiter, he says, but “we started reading the play for the first time and, my God, as soon as she opened her mouth, I knew. She was just magnificent. She takes you into this magical, inspiring place. It’s no longer my play. It’s her play.”
Spatz felt sure that South Florida theatergoers would enjoy Rose, but finding an available playhouse down here proved challenging. “We had looked from Fort Lauderdale to Jupiter,” he says. “We couldn’t find anyone that would talk to us. Most of the theaters here are controlled by a theater company and unavailable to us. I have to tell you we were about to give up because we could find nothing. Fortunately I got some promotional material from the Mizner, so I called them up and said, ‘What about next year?’ and we were able to cut a deal for the season.”
Following Rose, Forum will bring to Boca a noir mystery, Bloodshot (Jan. 24-Feb. 18), the world premiere of Truman and the Birth of Israel (March 21-April 8) written by producer Spatz and Squeeze My Cans (April 11-22), about one woman’s journey through and escape from Scientology.
Spatz expects to ease his way into the South Florida theater community. His goal this season is “to create a following and break even. It’s certainly not to make money. No one knows us down here yet.”
If all goes well, though, he can see this being an annual visit. “We’ll see how it goes. If it was a disaster, that would tend to influence us, but so far ticket sales have done very well,” he reports. “I would be surprised if we don’t come back next year. I already have a couple of plays in mind.”
But for the moment, Spatz and Leamer are concentrating on Rose. “The Kennedy story is a Florida story, it’s a Palm Beach County story,” says the author. “Here in one evening is the whole Kennedy story, told by the one person who understood it better than anybody. In will leave you enriched and in some places devastated, but understanding the Kennedys and Rose on a whole different level.”
ROSE, Mizner Park Cultural Center, 201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Nov. 29-Dec. 23. $28-$66. 844-672-2849.