When Betty Beemer needs a health pamphlet written, she turns to Vaughn Fischer, a freelancer whose career is going nowhere.
But Vaughn quickly becomes obsessed with turning a simple tract on syphilis into a masterpiece.
That’s the basic premise of Peter Jickling’s quirky play, Syphilis: A Love Story, which Ramshackle Theatre will present for a two-week run starting next week.
It was a chance encounter on his way into a barber shop last year that drew Ramshackle’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, into the project.
A freshly-shorn Jickling casually asked Fidler if he wanted to act in a play he was developing for Nakai Theatre’s 2010 Homegrown Festival.
As Fidler tells it, as soon as he read the script, he realized he wanted to direct the play, rather than acting in it.
“I was really captivated by the story of a writer who goes so far down a spiral after being rejected by the first thing he puts out there into the world, that he can barely find his way back out.”
As someone who makes art for a living – often solo performances he writes himself – Fidler understands the fear of failure that drives Vaughn’s obsession.
“You have to have a thick skin, and this is a character who doesn’t have a very thick skin,” he says.
“When I read it, I sort of put myself in that place,” he says. “If I took everything to heart, any criticism I ever had, would I ever get anywhere? Maybe I’d end up like this guy.”
As Vaughn (played by George Maratos) bashes away on an old Underwood manual typewriter, he gets so wrapped up in his quest to create an artistic masterpiece that he withdraws completely from the world.
The only visitor he ever admits to his apartment is his best friend, Howard Gunn (Anthony Trombetta).
As a successful writer “in a sell-out kind of way” Howard is a perfect foil to the perfectionist Vaughn.
“What he writes are movie-to-book adaptations, so he’s kind of working the other side of it,” Fidler explains. “They sort of have this ongoing battle about keeping your principles, versus selling out and making a living and paying the electric bill.”
Enter the love interest that explains the second part of the play’s title.
Lynn Flynn (Justine Davidson) is a mutual friend of Vaughn and Howard from back in their university days.
“She and Vaughn have always had a thing, but it was never consummated. And she steps back into his life and kind of shakes things up.”
Fidler is coy about how the Lynn character relates to Vaughn’s writing project.
“There are definitely some twists in how she ties into the storyline that would be a spoiler,” he says. “She ties in very strongly to the syphilis storyline. I’ll just leave it at that.”
As for Betty Beemer (Mary Sloan), whose search for a pamphlet writer started the whole ball rolling, Fidler is equally enigmatic.
“I like to quote Peter’s definition of her in the character descriptions: Who the hell is Betty Beemer?” he says.
“She’s just way out in left field. She sort of exists in a universe of her own; we’re not sure if she’s some projection, some aspect of his subconscious, or if she’s an alien.”
The director quickly adds a disclaimer about Jickling’s inspiration for the character.
“She’s not modeled after any local health partners,” he jokes.
Although it’s a bit of a departure from Ramshackle Theatre’s usual fare, Fidler considers Jickling’s play a good fit for his company.
“He has a way of writing that captures the way that people speak, but it has a really distinctive style. It’s witty, but it’s also got this sort of film noir kind of edge to it,” he says.
“It’s wonderful, it’s quirky, and it just appealed to me.”
Syphilis: A Love Story runs May 19-21 and May 24-28 at the Guild, with curtain at 8 pm. Tickets are $20.