Kelly McAllister An Indie Theater Profile by Martin Denton

Kelly McAllister is one of indie theater's true Renaissance Men, excelling as actor, producer, director, and—mostly, nowadays—playwright. I first got to know his work as an actor, in a production of Richard II at Expanded Arts on Ludlow Street and then in the title role of the (possibly) lost Shakespeare play Edward III.

So I knew the name, but not the man, when I noticed that he would be contributing a play to the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival. I got to read an early draft and liked what I saw. And then, that August, I got to see Last Call, and immediately recognized in Kelly McAllister not only a brilliant playwright but also a true kindred spirit.

In this play, a young man named David returns home to California after years away in a high-powered job in New York. 9/11, among other things, has changed his perspective about life.

Thousands of people dead. A war on terrorism that just gets curiouser and curiouser. Anthrax, some kid putting pipe bombs in mailboxes—things are totally fucked up. And there I am, buying this and selling that, closing deals like nothing ever happened. Keep going on like before. That’s what everyone said to do to fight the terrorists. Keep going on like before. Even if you’re an asshole, keep going on like before. It’s all so fucked and weird.

David, kind of like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, shakes up the lives and illusions of a group of his old pals who congregate in a favorite saloon. Indeed, Kelly has more than just Irish ancestry in common with Eugene O'Neill: his plays are always about the ways we prop each other up and the ways we pull each other down. Messy and poetic, like life, I said of Last Call. It's true of everything he's written.

That oeuvre has grown to include Muse of Fire (2003) and Some Unfortunate Hour (2005), both of which premiered at FringeNYC; Burning the Old Man (2004), which was presented by Boomerang Theatre Company; and Fenway (2006), a co-production of Boomerang and Impetuous Theater Group. I love all of Kelly's plays, but my favorite is certainly Burning the Old Man, and not just because one of its main characters has the same name as me. (I've never asked Kelly how Marty got his name in that play.)

Burning the Old Man is about Marty and Bobby, two adult brothers who do not get along and have not spent much time together, who are carrying their recently deceased father's ashes to the Burning Man Festival, where he has specified they be scattered. To say that their mission is fraught with mishap is a severe understatement: in the course of the play, their car explodes and they lose their father's remains at least once. The wild comic situations are just our way into this play, which is ultimately an exploration of finding a way to get through a troubling existence. The brothers negotiate this, as do the play's other memorable characters—Jo, the manager of the hotel where the brothers land during their crisis, and Candy and Earth, a pair of latter-day hippies seeking literal blessings as they travel toward the festival. Earth is given the two lines that are my favorites in all of Kelly's work. Asked if the ceremony he and Candy are about to perform will take a long time, he replies "Nothing in this world takes long. Everything takes short." And shortly thereafter, there is this pronouncement: "Love is evil, spelled backwards and wrong."

Editing these plays for their inclusion on the Indie Theater Now website, I've revisited them after several years, and they have delighted and surprised me. The next McAllister play is long past due, and I eagerly await it.

posted November 11, 2011