Remembering ‘Men’s Lives’ 20 Years Later

The first production of “Men’s Lives” struck a chord in the heart of the South Fork community
In rehearsal for “Men’s Lives,” which returns to the Bay Street Theatre next week, were Brian Hutchinson, Peter McRobbie, and Rob DiSario, with Harris Yulin, the director, right, and Scott Thomas Hinson and Deborah Hedwall in the background. Barry Gordin

   Joe Pintauro’s adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s book “Men’s Lives,” which had its premiere as the inaugural production at the Bay Street Theatre 20 years ago, will be revived there again beginning with previews on Wednesday with an opening night on July 7. The play, directed by Harris Yulin, will run through July 29.
    That first production of “Men’s Lives” struck a chord in the heart of the South Fork community, a reverberation that affected not only those faithful arts patrons who attended the performances but the backbone of this area — the fishermen and their families.
    It couldn’t have come at a better time. Inside the theater on Sag Harbor’s Long Wharf — which was carved from a former nightclub by Mary O’Connor, an architect — sail-like grommeted canvas was slung between heavy logs, giving the audience the impression, as they entered the theater, that they were under a pier.
    Outside the theater, on the beaches and in Washington, D.C., the “bass wars” between the government and the baymen and the rod-and-reelers was getting ugly. The day before the play previewed, the Baymen’s Association staged a protest on a beach in Amagansett, with about 20 baymen and more than 200 assorted supporters and celebrities including then-East Hampton Town Supervisor Tony Bullock and Billy Joel illegally fishing for striped bass with a haulseine net. Many were escorted away by the police, some in handcuffs, to the delight of the national press.
    Billy Joel’s song and music video of “The Downeaster Alexa” — featuring the familiar faces of baymen like Billy Havens, Jens Lester, and Danny King, with his memorable stars-and-stripes dory — had also catapulted the plight of the baymen into the public eye.
    To say the time was ripe for the opening of “Men’s Lives” at Bay Street would be a glaring understatement.
    And, according to Murphy Davis, Bay Street’s artistic director, and Mr. Pintauro, the work is more significant than ever.
    “Murphy and I were both amazed at the first reading,” Mr. Pintauro said. “The essence of what was in it is still in it. At the first read-through, it was as if the present caught up to the play. I think it’s more relevant now than it was even back then.”
    “If you talk to people, any people, about their jobs, their lives, what they bring to the world, their calling, the same feeling is basically shared by everyone,” Mr. Pintauro said. “Work is not about time and money, it’s about character. This is about people losing their homes, their lives, their souls, but still fighting, fighting right this very minute.”
    For Mr. Davis, the decision to bring “Men’s Lives” back to Bay Street was a very personal one. “At this time last year, when we were deciding the 2012 season, we didn’t know if we were going to have this space anymore. We didn’t know what our future would be. What did we want to do in what might have been our final season on Bay Street?” The play, also, is “a seminal point of success of how the theater started.”
    Although two of the founders, Stephen and Emma Walton Hamilton, have moved on, Mr. Davis acknowledged “what they did to bring this play to life. They are an integral part of this piece,” he said.
    Mr. Davis agreed with Mr. Pintauro that “Men’s Lives” touches everyone. “In the face of loss, something survives,” he said.
    Over the past week, some of those involved with the first production and with Bay Street’s opening 20 years ago shared their memories.
    Sybil Christopher, a co-founder of the theater, remembers saying to Mr. Hamilton, “A play about a fish? Are you mad?”
    “But then I read what Joe had written and changed my tune very quickly, as you can imagine. Emma’s input was huge, just huge. She worked on it all day, every day, from start to finish,” she said, and “it all led to a wonderful beginning, the opening night. I had friends there, good friends, who couldn’t even speak to me after the play. They were overwhelmed and overcome. Totally speechless.”
    “ ‘Men’s Lives’ was, and remains, a creative high point of my life,” said Ms. Walton Hamilton. “The synergy of the political events happening at the time, the birth of the theater, and the unique nature of the production itself made for an unparalleled experience for everyone involved. I will never forget it.”
    Etched in Mr. Hamilton’s mind is “the day the baymen were on the beach in Amagansett being hauled away in cuffs by state troopers, and that same evening watching those same faces in the audience at Bay Street as they witnessed their own stories on stage in Joe’s beautiful piece. Some of them had never seen a play before in their lives. Those were the days we learned what theater could do."

   "For some time I floundered in my efforts to come up with an iconic scenic item that might innately suggest the saga of the baymen's wretched predicament, and also serve as a useful staging centerpiece," Tony Walton, who was the designer, said in an email. "I shared my problem with Joe Pintauro, who mentioned that he had heard of a wrecked portion of a still-recognizable boat hull, which, during storms, had sometimes been tossed up on the beach near Amagansett, but was soon drawn back into the unruly ocean."

     Cloaked in a cold grey February mist, they went to find it. "We could still make out the long and completely deserted stretches of beach to the left and to the right of us. Yet in front of us, down at the water's edge, loomed the very wreck that Joe had heard about," Mr. Walton said. "Gleaming wet, with a quietly disturbing aura emanating from it, it immediately appeared to me to convey the heart-rending essence of the hard and rapidly-disappearing haulseining life and livelihood of the baymen."

     "Our wrecked and ruined remnant, so unexpectedly offered up to us by the upquiet ocean, most hauntingly evoked the very spirit of Joe Pintauro's beautiful play," Mr. Walton said.

     "Tony Walton mentioned one day, with a distinct measure of excitement, that there was a washed-up cracked hull of a boat on the beach that he thought may be useful," wrote Chris Smith, who directed the original production. "He made a little freehand sketch of the upturned hull on a bare stage of sand with a cloth stretched up to the rafters like sail behind it. With those brief strokes, a challenging and cinematic play found its extraordinary, elemental home."

     The sketch, signed by Mr. Walton and framed in rustic wood, is among his most prized possessions, he said. 

     "To be honest," Mr. Smith said, "we were not entirely sure how the production would be received. We had a gorgeous script, tremendously talented cast, and thrilling new space, yet it was all very, very raw. And we were telling an emotional story about the East End to itself. Feeling both miraculous and destined, however, it all came together."

     "To have been involved in the original production of 'Men's Lives' was a rare priviledge," wrote Arnold Leo, who at the time was secretary of the Baymen's Association. "Extraordinary care was taken by everyone to make the reality of the baymen come alive on the stage." And on opening night, he said, "a vital and essential element of the original, traditional East End community lived and breathed that night on stage."

     "Dan and I pulled out an old Newsday review of the play last night," wrote Marsha King, Danny King's wife. "It did exactly what we anticipated -- stirred up emotions that had been buried for some time . . . Similar emotions had shown themselves the night we sat amongst the 'upstreeters' and the summer people who watched 'Men's Lives' with us at Bay Street Theatre."

     "We don't remember which emotion was strongest," Ms. King said, "pride at being recognized as 'one of the baymen' or awkwardness at being there amongst the people who 'do summers' in the Hamptons, and whether they recognized it or not, were part of the reason the baymen's  way of life was being destroyed. There were many times that the characters in the play said or went through things that only those who had fished the waters could truly understand. We were reminded that the ocean was an equal part of a relationship with each of us.”

    “What I remember are the baymen, Billy Havens especially,” said David Eigenberg, an actor who played Popeye. “They took a bunch of us actors out to the ocean and put us in a dory. Billy, I think, was driving the dory or the truck into the waves. To think that amazing way of life is gone really makes me sad.”
    Mr. Havens remembered the first day he met the cast and listened to them read their lines. “I said to myself, ‘They’re not going to cut it with our Bonacker lingo.’ So when I left that night I went home with the script in hand and taped all of David’s lines and did the same for Jay [Patterson] and Jack [Hannibal].” The actors were thankful, “because they wanted to tell the story of ‘Men’s Lives’ and sound original and they did one hell of a job. I guess that’s why they call them actors.”
    “The sense of all being in it together was everywhere,” said Randy Freed, the sound designer. “At 2 a.m., my 3-year-old daughter, Georgia, could be found asleep on a pile of pillows in a back row as I worked, hanging speakers or rigging C.B.-style microphones to the hull of a magical boat that had washed ashore just for us.”
    “How did I write this, all that time ago?” Mr. Pintauro said he asked himself when hearing the play read again for the new production. “It didn’t feel 20 years old. It’s about people being more or less crowded out by wealth and progress. It’s still topical now, but to many more people. It’s a great war that should not be overlooked.”

    Bridget LeRoy is the stepdaughter of Tony Walton and stepsister of Emma Walton Hamilton. Randy Freed is her ex-husband.