Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?
Canal Park Playhouses revival of Joe Rolands On the Line
At 6 a.m. on the morning of October 14, as news spread of Mayor Bloomberg’s intended “cleanup” of Zuccotti Park, hundreds of union members amassed on the corner of Liberty and Broadway, carrying brooms, buckets, and signs to show their support for the growing grassroots political movement against corporate greed in Manhattan. Sadly, Jimmy, Mikey, and Dev—three childhood friends and union workers who assemble auto parts on the line of an undisclosed factory somewhere near New York—could not be there that morning in the flesh, though certainly their spirit infused the scene. No, they could not be there in person, mostly because they are not actual people per se, but fictional characters in On the Line, Joe Roland’s particularly poignant and infectiously funny play now in revival at the Canal Park Playhouse.
“As we’ve gone into rehearsal here, the Occupy Wall Street protests have happened almost around the corner,” Kipp Osborne, owner of the Canal Park Inn and Playhouse, tells me. “We never could have planned such a thing, but it’s so connected to it—it’s like the forces of society are wanting to hear this play.”
This play, written by Roland eight years ago, tells the story of three working class men whose remarkable, 25-year friendship splinters after a strike in their factory town forces each to reassess his allegiances, like the lyrics of Florence Reece’s famous paean to the United Mine Workers of Harlan County, “Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?” There’s Mikey, the divorced broken-hearted father who wants to make a haven for “his daughter to come home to those three weekends out of the month”; Dev, the hard-drinking and unintentionally hilarious bachelor who likes the legs on his women long (“In the presence of physical beauty suddenly everything makes sense. I am here to bear witness,”) whose factory routine gives him “this sense of being a real goddamned person”; and lastly Jimmy, an Italian stallion who married “the best person [he] knows,” an Irish woman named Meg who tolerates him. “Never in my life have I felt more human than when my wife and two girls are cackling with glee at some silly thing I’ve done,” he confesses.
When that whistle blows at 5 p.m. (thanks to the union), these men each head home to their differing realities, but during the day they share the same everyday struggles between member and management, a secret sign language to use on the line, and a coffee thermos. “Together,” as Jimmy relays early on, “we were like some miracle alloy that couldn’t be broken. We had this unity. This unstoppable force, like a waterfall. You just had to watch it and hope.”
Their holy trinity, we soon learn, began in the first grade, much like many of the playwright’s own lasting boyhood bonds. “I had an idealized mythology of friendship,” admits Roland, “and particularly one that started at seven years old and went all the way into the 30s. The triangle of that relationship interested me . . . if one gets removed somehow it doesn’t quite fit in the same way.”
So when Mikey takes the bait and goes to bat for management mid-strike, what happens to the waterfall? After a first act that pries the heart open to let these men in, all we can do is “watch it and hope” that Roland’s mythology finds a fitting resolution for these three friends, who in no time at all, have become ours as well.
It’s important to note here that besides being a playwright, Roland is also a teacher and the actor who filled Dev’s shoes with gusto (and enthusiastic reviews) in the play’s 2006 premiere at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Of the original production—directed by Peter Sampieri and co-produced by Mike Nichols, Roland’s mentor from the New Actors Workshop—Jason Zinoman, in his New York Times review, had this to say: “In a theater culture more likely to produce a play set in a well-heeled living room than on a factory floor, Joe Roland's On the Line, an unflinching portrait of a strike in New Jersey, is a welcome anomaly.”
One could say the play was not only “a welcome anomaly” on the New York theater scene, but also on Roland’s theatrical career path. Truth be told, he actually wrote On the Line—his first full-length play—to give himself a meaty role during a professional drought. “I wrote it out of self-defense,” he says. “I’m an actor, I wanted a part. And I wrote it for friends of mine to be in it too, for us to have something to do.”
But he says the subject matter and backdrop of the play was a whole other story, and one that began long before he repeatedly got cast as Joe Mitchell (“He’s my Count of Monte Cristo”) in back-to-back productions of Waiting for Lefty—Clifford Odets’ impassioned theatrical response to New York’s taxi strike in the aftermath of the Great Depression and scourge of unemployment. “So I’m Irish—if you can’t tell—and come from some real working class roots. One of my grandfathers was a teamster, and another worked at the Navy Yards,” he adds. “That was my family history, so I had an immediate affinity for these people who were fighting for a living wage and a way to feed their families.”
Surrounded by his own union role models, Roland says he didn’t have to dig too deep to channel his characters. But there’s also that summer in 1996 when, like Dev in the play, he manned the midnight shift during a five-week strike at the New York hotel where he undoubtedly entertained guests as a room service waiter. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Roland heckled scabs and line crossers, futilely screaming into shuttered hotel windows, “Wake up! Wake up! We’re on strike! Wake up!”
“I was young and an actor and I wasn’t as concerned as some of the others,” he says. “But I looked around and saw these people fighting for their livelihoods, for their children, like the women on the housecleaning staff . . . they were fierce on the line. I was incredibly moved by the whole experience.”
So moved, in fact, that Roland now earns his livelihood working as a teacher for 32BJ (Building Janitors), a local union of some 70,000 building service workers in the New York metropolitan area, including doormen, porters, and “all the armies of cleaning people whose shifts start while we’re fast asleep.” In a class he teaches called TheatreWorks!, union members write their own 10-minute plays, which will eventually be performed by professional actors in conjunction with the Working Theater. And 32BJ is actually where Kipp Osborne, sitting across from me in the lobby of his Canal Park Playhouse, first came into contact with Roland’s work. Osborne’s wife Margot, who also worked at the union, introduced the two men several years ago, just in time for Osborne to catch the premiere of On the Line.
Now, all this was before Osborne decided to transform the historic 1826 Canal House building he’s owned since the ’80s into a thriving, country cottage-inspired bed and breakfast, Waffle Iron Cafe and 55-seat jewel of a theater, just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. But once he saw the play, the furniture maker, actor (in his “wayward youth”), ventriloquist, and new proprietor of not only an inn but a theater to boot, immediately knew Roland’s play represented the kind of theater he wanted to produce someday.
“My father never finished high school and my father-in-law went to Harvard,” Osborne says. “I wanted to have the kind of space in that back room where these two guys, sitting in seats next to each other, at the end of a performance could leave the theater feeling how connected they were to each other, rather than how different they were. I like stories that cut through all those very superficial differences between people.”
So, a few years later, when he finally fulfilled his dream of building an intimate Everyman’s theater, replete with the original 1960s seats from Broadway’s legendary Sullivan Street Playhouse, Osborne asked Roland to be his first resident playwright. The rest will be history, as they say. But before we go, Osborne has something else to say about the play, which he finds particularly prescient. “There’s a backstory to the play,” he says, “that I keep thinking about, especially with all these protests going on right now.”
In 2004, after Roland had several successful readings at high falutin’ places, including the Public Theater, he was approached by a few wide-eyed Broadway producers who wanted to do the play. As Osborne remembers: “They said to Joe, ‘We want to do the play! But, of course, we’re going to get all new, big-name actors in and a new director. Joe said, ‘No I don’t think so.’ So they came back a little later and said, ‘Tell you what, Joe—we’re going to replace the other two actors but you can still do your part. Joe said, ‘I don’t think that will be in the best interest of the play.’”
“That tells you a little something about Joe’s integrity,” Osborne adds, his eyes agleam. “Do you know how few playwrights would respond that way? We so believe that the fat cats are running the whole show that we don’t want to believe that anybody credible can come in and challenge that. But that’s what’s happening down there on Wall Street. They’re saying, ‘The little guy matters!’ The way Joe handled that situation eight years ago is exactly what people are doing right now, when they’re sitting in on Wall Street. And if more people did that, the fat cats wouldn’t get away with it. It’s high time—and past time—people yell and scream about the state of not only our own economy, but also the global company. So in its small way—and heaven knows the Canal Park Playhouse couldn’t be any smaller—we’re somehow a part of the action. What can I say, it all seems really timely.”