"Write about what you know": We may safely assume that Thomas McCormack offered this familiar bit of sage advice to many a novice author during his more than a quarter-century career as working editor/CEO at St. Martin’s Press. For this is advice McCormack scrupulously follows in his current Off-Broadway play, Endpapers, whose authority lies precisely in its inside view of the world of big-time publishing.
This is a better late than never debut: before business absorbed all his later energies, McCormack, on the strength of a promising one-act play, had been accepted in the late 1960s`as a member of the Richard Barr-Edward Albee Playwrights Unit, a group whose fledgling playwrights included a few colleagues heard from since: Sam Shepard, John Guare, A.R. Gurney, Terrence McNalley, and Lanford Wilson. Life, however, often revises projected second acts, and it has taken more than thirty years for McCormack, at the age of 70, to offer his first full-length play.
Endpapers is a solid, well-crafted if unaudacious dramatic debut. Set in a distinguished but troubled publishing house at a crucial moment of corporate transition, the collective portrait of its assorted characters (owners, editors, authors) is formally realistic, its dramatic conflicts largely predictable–even if its dramatic resolutions are not. Elements of comedy and melodrama enliven the dramatic mix. But what really holds the attention is its authoritative knowledge of the world it is exploring. The crafty editor in McCormack recognizes that audiences love to be admitted into the inner sanctums of important professions like publishing. There’s the feeling that if we were really insiders we’d know after whom these characters are modeled.
The spine of the play is the question of corporate succession. The eponymous founder/CEO of prestigious, independent, but financially unstable Joshua Maynard Books is dying and the very existence of his company may well depend upon who is chosen to succeed him. The two main contenders could not be more opposite in temperament. In one corner is Griff, the favorite of the firm’s loyal older, deadwood staff. Griff is a truth-teller, an eccentric, idealistic ex-philosophy student dedicated to the firm’s independence. Initially, his idealism commands audience sympathy, particularly because his main rival, Ted, is an aggressive dynamo whose slippery charm and Machiavellian mind are so resolutely focused on the bottom line that he is not averse to radical surgery if needed to enhance it.
In the first act, when the firm’s benevolent patriarch moves about the office in a wheelchair planning his succession, it is assumed that Ted, for practical reasons, has the inner track. But when the patriarch dies on stage at the end of Act One, the formal decision has not as yet been made; it passes on to Maynard’s restless daughter who precipitates a crisis by opting for the idealistic, if problematic, Griff. In exploring the consequences of this decision, Endpapers is at its most interesting as McCormack subverts traditional dramatic expectations. He shows that sympathetic choices may well prove disastrous. In one day Griff makes so many bad decisions (on principle, of course) that the firm’s viability is in question as its bank threatens to call in its loan. All of a sudden Ted’s draconian solutions don’t seem quite so evil. But here again McCormack confounds expectations: The character who finally ends up as CEO is a total (but logical) surprise that shouldn’t be revealed. It is a dramatic resolution that is more than merely a plot device because it speaks to the significant question of the increasing vulnerability of independent publishing in today’s mega-merger business culture.
Among the play’s other inside pleasures are several amusing satirical portraits of egocentric celebrity authors who, of course, make outrageous demands that the infuriated Griff, during his brief reign, rejects out of hand regardless of the financial consequences. There are comic sequences in which Griff (in a role in which he genuinely excels) replies sagaciously via E-mail to a wild (funny, scary, both) assortment of letters to the editors. These dramatic pleasures are enhanced by a thoroughly professional production by director Pamela Berlin. She is aided immeasurably by set designer Neil Patel who puts onstage an entire office scrupulous in its physical detail save for the absence of interior walls (the individual offices are defined by the molding above). And she has assembled a uniformly excellent acting ensemble. Bruce McCarty and Tim Hopper are the contrasting contenders Griff and Ted; their conflict lies at the heart of the play. But the entire cast convincingly embodies a disparate but all too recognizable assortment of denizens of the world of publishing.
Endpapers is precisely set in "the offices of a mid-sized New York book publisher, last October." And yet the post-9/11 world is never mentioned in this play whose concerns surely predate it, raising the question why, then, this unnecessary temporal specificity? In any case, Welcome home, Mr. McCormack. Next time, write about what you want to know.