With New Play, Breslin Keeps Focuson What Matters: Real People
By Kevin Cullen
July 12, 2006
New York -- Jimmy Breslin is standing in the kitchen of his 16th-floor penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side, making coffee.
Nearly two years since he gave up writing a regular newspaper column, which is like Roger Clemens giving up pitching, or Tony Bennett giving up singing, Breslin is still writing, maybe more than ever. The former Newsday columnist is working on a play, a novel, a screenplay, whatever. High above the Manhattan pavement, he is like a fish in water.
"If I stop writing," Jimmy Breslin says, "I die."
He is Irish, by temperament if not citizenship, and so dying sometimes preoccupies him. Love and death. They are the themes at the heart of his new play, "Love Lasts on Myrtle Avenue," about a couple and 9/11, which gets a staged reading at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth for three nights beginning tomorrow .
Breslin is 75 now, the map of Ireland still on his face, the soul of New York still buried somewhere deep inside. He is wearing a gray bricklayers union sweatshirt and shoes that look like slippers. I tell him he looks like Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, the New York gangster who tried to stay out of jail by dressing like a bum and acting crazy.
Breslin stops pouring the coffee and looks up.
"I am crazy," he says.
Crazy like a fox, is more like it.
As Breslin putters around the kitchen, his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, says, "He's busier than ever. He's got a million ideas, going in a million directions. Same as ever."
He is still, in some ways, working through his 14th book, "The Church That Forgot Christ," published in 2004 in the wake of the Catholic clergy sexual-abuse crisis. Don't get him going about the people who run the Catholic Church.
Don't talk to him about President Bush.
And, whatever you do, don't ask him about the current state of journalism, which he doesn't call journalism.
"The business," he says, waving a hand, dismissively. "The business is gone."
But Breslin's desire to matter as a writer isn't. "Love Lasts on Myrtle Avenue" got a reading by Rip Torn and Estelle Parsons at the Actors Studio in New York last December. Lee Grant directed. In Falmouth, Torn will reprise the role he read in New York, joined by the veteran character actress Lois Smith. The event will reunite two actors who shared a Broadway stage some 40 years ago in "Blues for Mr. Charlie." Gordon Edelstein will direct the Cape production, and it could be a prelude to a Broadway run.
"I don't know about that stuff," Breslin insists.
But he does know about dialogue. He does not speak the Queen's English, but he is a master of the English spoken in his native Queens, where the play is set. Myrtle Avenue runs from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens.
Ask some playwrights to explain their plays and they'll go on for hours. Breslin is still a newspaperman, so he keeps it tight, and he doesn't bury the lead.
"It's about a guy who goes to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and doesn't come back," Breslin says. "He wakes up six months later on a boat in New Jersey."
Of course, like Breslin himself, the play is more complex than it may initially appear. And, like everything Breslin writes, whether it's about moronic wiseguys ("The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight") or Northern Ireland ("World Without End, Amen") it's based on real people in real situations.
The play is about a wife who waits for her husband, an office painter who is presumed dead with some 3,000 others in the rubble in Lower Manhattan. It's a love story about faith and hope, and it's an elegy for the simple dignity of working people, something that Breslin has contributed to the body politic as much as any important American writer.
Breslin wrote the play in the first three months after he stopped writing his newspaper column in 2004. A few months before that, his daughter, Rosemary, died of a blood disorder.
For the last 24 years, Eldridge has been his rock. She knows when to laugh at him and when to yell at him and, perhaps most important, when to ignore him. Breslin needs space sometimes.
As we sit, having one more cup of coffee, I tell Breslin that the most successful marriages, in terms of longevity, are those matching Jews and Irish Catholics, like Eldridge and him.
"You guys," I say, "are like Stiller and Meara."
He looks at me.
He looks at Eldridge.
"Why are you telling me this?" Breslin asks.
Eldridge rolls her eyes and pads off to a bedroom to write on her computer.
We talk about the play and make plans to meet up on the Cape. I tell Breslin that he and Eldridge should take the Acela up to Providence, rent a car, then drive to the Cape.
"Don't go all the way up to Boston," I say. "You'll just be doubling back."
"Yeah, yeah," Breslin says, smiling, rubbing his hands together. Two Irish guys making a plan. In federal court, they call that a conspiracy.
Eldridge comes out of the bedroom.
"What are you two talking about?" she says, hands on hips. "We don't need a train. We don't need to rent a car. I'm going to drive up."
Jimmy Breslin looks at her, then me. He gives that smirk.
"Whatever," he says, throwing the back of his left hand at something, anything. "Whatever."
Cape Cod Theatre Project presents "Love Lasts on Myrtle Avenue" tomorrow through Saturday at Falmouth Academy, Falmouth. Tickets: $18. 508-457-4242, [www.capecodtheatreproject.org.]
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