By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
What would you get if A.R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Love Letters went rogue?
You’d have Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore’s crowd-pleasing comedy You’ve Got Hate Mail.
Instead of two lifelong friends reading sweet letters and postcards they exchanged for 50 years directly to the audience, you get five people with laptops, an acrimonious divorce and vile emails zipping through cyberspace.
The one-act show enters its fourth year on Friday, June 28, at Manhattan’s Upper West Side’s Stage 72 (formerly The Triad Theatre) and travels to the Jersey Shore Saturday, June 29, for one performance only at 7:30 p.m. at McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park.
The original cast – Van Zandt, Milmore, Fran Solgan, Glenn Jones, and Barbara Bonilla – will perform.
The show is directed by Gary Shaffer.
The inspiration for Hate Mail came from a production of Love Letters, featuring Van Zandt’s wife Adrienne Barbeau, that the writers attended around 1995.
“We stopped and started writing a letter-writing show called Hate Mail in about 2000, then abandoned it,” Van Zandt wrote last weekend in an email from Japan. “After realizing laptops and emails were the way to go, we wrote what is now You’ve Got Hate Mail in 2007.”
The show was workshopped that same year and revised for a 2010 production at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, and the subsequent New York show. Not the traditional revenge play, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s more of a get-even play based on emails Milmore received during a nasty divorce from her first husband.
“It was a time of heartbreak,” Milmore said in a telephone interview. “It was upsetting and traumatic.”
Van Zandt saw the humor.
“Billy said I should save the emails I was getting – they were so entertaining,” she said. “There are a few times in the show where I’m still amazed I actually wrote what I did.”
Monmouth County natives Van Zandt and Milmore, who met during a theater competition in high school and once dated, play husband and wife Richard and Stephanie. Jones, Bonilla and Solgan play the work colleague, best friend and slutty girlfriend, respectively.
The formula has global appeal. The comedy has been done in Malta, Australia and New Zealand. Productions now are running in Slovenia, Poland and the Czech Republic. It opens in London and Mexico City in September.
“Everybody emails now and it’s an easy show to do,” Milmore said. “A lot of our shows (they’ve written, staged and performed in 23) require big sets and a huge cast. Rehearsal time is about as much time as for Love Letters.
In Love Letters, popular with busy actors who can’t commit to a long run or rehearsal, actors don’t have to worry about computer glitches. Milmore said she has done Hate Mail so often she’s memorized the script, but is suppose to be reading the emails as they appear on her screen.
“Early on, the PCs would suddenly start doing a virus search or you’d hit the wrong key and pictures of Billy’s kids would pop up,” Milmore said. “Now the keys are locked and there is nothing on the laptops but the script.”
Because they have been busy working on other projects and traveling from their homes in California to perform in the Manhattan production (staged the last Friday of each month), the authors haven’t done a spring show at Brookdale since June 2010. They hope to change that with a work for next spring called A Dirty Farce.
“We miss the students and we like it there,” she said. The writing duo also funds theater scholarships at the school that have helped 35 students continue their education. They, however, got their education via hands-on experience, first in Hollywood and then at the Dam Site (now MJ’s at the Falls) in Tinton Falls. Eventually they wrote and produced their own shows for the dinner theater on the top floor.
That’s where they first met Tim McLoone, the musician and restaurant owner.
“I started at the Dam Site with its first show (Lovers and Other Strangers) in 1974,” Van Zandt wrote. “Jane started there a year later.
“Tim was there playing the piano behind the bar. (It’s an) historical site, no room for renovations, so they shoved a grand piano behind the bar and served drinks around him,” he continued. “We (the actors who worked upstairs) were known to the waiters and busboys as ‘The Play People.’ ”
Van Zandt and Milmore booked McLoone’s Supper Club for a reunion party in 2009 and fell in love with the room.
“Just took us a little long to get back there to perform,” Van Zandt said. “I mentioned it to Tim, and he booked us.”
Meanwhile, the multi-tasking partners who have long been writing and developing comedy series for TV (Newhart, Martin, Daddy Dearest), are working on several new pilots.
“We are working on one multi-cam comedy called Born Identity, Milmore said. “It’s about how your birth order in your family plays out in your life even when you are older and on your own. This is for a few different networks.”
Other pilots include one for Disney called Bebe From the Block, which at this time they are not doing. For the HUB, another children’s network, they are waiting to hear on two projects: The Pancake King and Witless.
And for something completely different, they are putting together a historical drama that at this point is untitled.
You gotta wonder when they find time to sleep.
For more information on You’ve Got Hate Mail, visit www.youvegothatemail.com and click on Tickets & Schedule to buy tickets to both shows: Stage 72, 158 W. 72nd W. St., Manhattan, 7 p.m. June 28, $30 and $35; McLoone’s Supper Club, 1200 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park, 7:30 p.m. June 29, $20 and $30.