Volume 75, Number 51 | May 10 - 16 2006

Photo by Joan Marcus

Carson Elrod as Ethan Keene and Pedro Pascal as Michael Sullivan in the premiere of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s semi-true, life play.

An almost totally autobiographical play

By Jerry Tallmer

The two main characters of a play called “Based on a Totally True Story” are a couple of writers in their late 20s or early 30s who meet cute in a coffee joint in Chelsea and become boyfriends and have a number of professional and interpersonal problems, especially the one named Ethan Keene, who is all tangled up in trying to shape a movie script from one of his own plays to the satisfaction of a Hollywood producer named Mary Ellen Eustice who keeps telling him how much she loves his stuff except for just one or two tiny little things – like the way he kills off all his characters by drowning them in a vengeful ocean.

Ethan’s day job, which pays the rent, is writing the dialogue of a comic strip called “The Flash.” He is now trying to get back to writing another play one of these days.

The other guy, the boyfriend, is Michael Sullivan. He’s something of a sounding board. Finally, there’s Ethan’s dad, who has shocked the spots off Ethan by ditching his wife – Ethan’s mom – for a much younger woman.

“Based on a Totally True Story,” by 33-year-old, 6-foot-21/2-inch playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, had its world-premiere opening last month as a Manhattan Theatre Club production at New York City Center’s Stage II on West 55th Street. It closes May 28.

Any play called “Based on a Totally True Story” demands the question: Is this play based on a totally true story? And if the answer is yes, then a second question: Are you, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, one or both of these two guys, Ethan Keene and Michael Sullivan?

“This is definitely my most autobiographical play,” said Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose Nicaraguan parents, Francisco Aguirre and Maria Sacasa, combined their last names when they married. “I do write plays and comic books,” he affirmed, “and two producers did option one of my plays to turn it into a horror movie.

“This play was originally commissioned by the Geva Theater of Rochester, New York. I hadn’t written a play in a while, so I started writing a play about a playwright who hadn’t written a play in a while. So that bare skeleton is very, very true. But the more specific things are definitely imagined. Ethan’s father is divorcing; my parents are very happily married. And although I’ve had some messy breakups, the particular one in this play [Ethan and Michael’s] is very different. Still, there’s a lot of me in all the characters, including Michael.”

In the play, a first date to see the French horror classic “Eyes Without a Face” at Film Forum is followed by dinner at Orso’s on Restaurant Row, followed in ensuing days by going together to a Michael Cunningham reading at Barnes & Noble on 21st Street, to a play at the Public, to a Scissor Sisters concert at Irving Plaza, followed by Michael’s e-mail to Ethan: “Hey, sexy, bring your toothbrush and pajamas tonight, okay? You’re staying over, Smiley Face.”

There is, said playwright Aguirre-Sacasa — who lives in Washington Heights, not Chelsea — no Michael in his life right now.

He wrote the play “very quickly” in the winter of 2004. Emily Shooltz — “a good friend from Yale Drama” — read it and passed it along to Paige Evans, MTC’s director of artistic development, who passed it along to Michael Bush, who read it and said he wanted to stage it. The players are Carson Elrod as Ethan, Pedro Pascal as Michael, Kristine Nielsen as Mary Ellen, Michael Tucker as Ethan’s Dad, and Erik Heger as Ethan’s editor at D.C. Comics. That’s D.C. as in Washington, D.C., where Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was born November 15, 1972.

So yes, Roberto is a comic-strip writer — not just one strip, but two. Ethan in the play writes “The Flash” — “the fastest man alive” — for D.C. Comics. Roberto in (so to speak) real life writes “The Fantastic Four” and “Spider-Man” for Marvel Comics.

Say, did you do the screenplays for those Spider-Man movies?

“No, I sure didn’t,” he said ruefully.

So what about that Mary Ellen Eustice character, the Hollywood-producer lady with all her tiny little suggestions?

“You know, it’s funny. She and her husband are loosely based on a couple who optioned one of my plays, ‘The Muckleman,’ a folkloric thriller — ”

Like “Frankenstein?”

“Sort of.” [“The Muckleman” is the play within the play, the one with all the drownings.] “They wanted me to turn it into a horror picture called ‘Jude Island.’ I went through about 50 drafts, and never met her [the Mary Ellen] for three years except on the phone, until she came to New York about three months ago.”

Did she really keep diluting your play?

“I actually don’t think of it as diluting. When you take a play and turn it into a movie, things happen. That’s just normal process, and it just happens.”

It might be possible, a moviegoer said, to sympathize with Mary Ellen, who wanted to cheer that story up a little bit.

“Of course, of course,” said the playwright. “ ‘The Muckleman’s’ a total tragedy.” Another play of his, “Dark Matters,” scheduled to be done by Off-Broadway’s Rattlestick company next fall, has been optioned by Warner Bros., with Roberto to do that screenplay. “A family drama with strong science-fiction overtones.”

Speaking of family, tell us about yours.

“They live in Nicaragua. My father’s involved in politics there.”

On which side?

“The good side.”

Might one have read about him in the New York Times?

“You may have read about him. He’s running for president.”

Oh.

“He was just a banker when I was born in Washington. After that he was the ambassador.”

Oh.

The ambassador’s son went to Georgetown University for a BA in English and Fine Arts, to McGill University in Montreal for an MA in English Literature, to Yale Drama School for an MFA in Playwriting. It was while at Yale that he was recruited to start writing for Marvel Comics.

“A very lucky break. It allows me to write plays.”

Maybe not needed if one’s father is a banker?

“Well, yeah … not me … but yes it would be.”

Not needed? Needed? Let’s let it hang there. Could be another play somewhere inside those question marks. Mary Ellen Eustice will have just one or two tiny suggestions …

BASED ON A TOTALLY TRUE STORY. By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Michael Bush. A Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at New York City Center Stage I, through May 28, (212) 581-1212.

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