The Vineyard Playhouse opens season with “The Screenwriter’s Daughter”

MJ Bruder Munafo and The Vineyard Playhouse bring Larry Mollin's "The Screenwriter's Daughter" to an Island stage.
File photo by Jaxon White

MJ Bruder Munafo and The Vineyard Playhouse bring Larry Mollin's "The Screenwriter's Daughter" to an Island stage.

The subject, or rather subjects, of accomplished television and film producer Larry Mollin’s latest project are two historical figures very close to his heart. With his new play, which will have its world premiere starting this Friday, July 6, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, he is hoping to resurrect a father and daughter who were influential — though in very different spheres — in the mid 20th century. Both characters left lasting impressions on Mr. Mollin, though not on the world at large.

“It’s the true and imagined story of two people who were both icons of their generation but largely forgotten,” said Mr. Mollin. The play is presented by The Vineyard Playhouse for five performances this weekend and next.

In the case of at least one of these characters, it’s hard to believe that history has not left more of an imprint. “The Screenwriter’s Daughter” is based on the lives of Ben Hecht and his daughter Jenny.

Mr. Hecht was a screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, and novelist who, in his day, was called “the Shakespeare of Hollywood.” During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Mr. Hecht wrote or collaborated on more than 120 screenplays, including those for some of the most iconic films of all time. Among the titles he worked on are “Scarface,” “Gunga Din,” and “Gone with the Wind.” Screenplays by Mr. Hecht were nominated for six Academy Awards and won two.

“He wrote for money, he didn’t care about credit,” said Mr. Mollin, who has conducted a great deal of research on his illustrious subject. “He did the last draft of ‘Gone with the Wind’ uncredited.”

Mr. Hecht also played a large role as a Jewish activist before, during, and after WWII. “He [Hecht] has never been given credit as one of the rescuers of the Holocaust,” Mr. Mollin said. “He was helpful in bringing attention to the Holocaust at a time when the Jewish leadership working with Roosevelt were complicit in not letting people know what was going on. They were afraid that the war would be perceived as a Jewish war.”

Mr. Hecht wrote articles and plays condemning Nazi Germany, and after the war ended he continued work for the establishment of the State of Israel.

His daughter, Jenny, followed in her father’s footsteps, both in her involvement in theater and her participation as a political activist. While still a very young woman, she became involved in the Living Theater — an experimental group that in the 1960s moved its base of operations from New York City to Europe where it dedicated itself to using the theater as a medium for furthering social change.

“They got involved with the Red Army,” Mr. Mollin said of the Living Theater, which is still in existence today. “They were part of a scene that caused an uproar. They were an integral part of the student riots in Paris. There was total chaos wherever they performed that got people active. They helped fuel the anti-establishment movement in this country.”

Mr. Mollin had the chance to see Ms. Hecht perform in New York in the late 1960s. “I was very impressed,” he said. “I was somewhat enamored of her.”

The playwright calls Ms. Hecht, “An icon of the 60s who’s just been forgotten. She had an original style. Between beatnik and hippy, she was the missing link.”

“The Screenwriter’s Daughter” takes place during one pivotal day in 1964 when Ms. Hecht is preparing to leave for Europe against her father’s wishes. “The play takes place in kind of a dream time for these characters,” Mr. Mollin said. “It goes back and forth in time. It’s not a linear story, more a digital story.”

The differing views between father and daughter provide the conflict. “They pitch each other their story lines of the future,” he said. “There is just great love and great anger.”

Mr. Mollin Describes his characters’ viewpoints, Mr. Mollin said, “Like any rebellious young woman, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t do what her father did.”

Mr. Hecht, on the other hand, had to face the fact that, “He could create any story he wanted. How could he not control his own situation?

“It’s a classic father-daughter story. The one trait of yours that your kids inherit is the one you least want them to have.”

A part-time Islander who is perhaps best known for his work as executive producer for “Beverly Hills 90210,” Mr. Mollin started writing the play two years ago while on the Island. In researching his characters’ lives, he travelled to Indiana to meet Hecht biographer William MacAdams.

“He validated my theory of what was going on between Jenny and Ben,” Mr. Mollin said. “I knew that I was on the right track. I knew it was a true story.” Mr. Mollin had the chance to read a number of letters between father and daughter.

Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory and the American Repertory Theaters, read Mr. Mollin’s script and brought it to the attention of The Vineyard Playhouse’s artistic director, M.J. Bruder Munafo. Last summer, the Playhouse presented a reading of the play as part of its annual Monday Night Special series. The reading was a sellout and was very well received. Mr. Brustein took on the part of Ben Hecht and Ella Dershowitz played Jenny.

“Even though the theater was closing for this summer, M.J. really wanted to see a full production and she pushed for it,” Mr. Mollin said. The play will be one of two mainstage productions hosted by The Playhouse at off-site venues this summer.

Ms. Dershowitz, am actress based in New York, will reprise her role in this production. Ken Baltin, a longtime professional actor, teacher, and director from the Boston area, will take on the other lead.

Mr. Mollin, who will be directing his own work, got his show business start as an actor in New York theater many years ago. He was involved with the Vineyard Players here in the 1960s and ran his own theater company in Toronto — acting, writing, and directing – during the 1970s. The last time Mr. Mollin directed a play — in the late 1970s — the theater caught on fire on opening night. This time around, Mr. Mollin is hoping to grab people’s attention in a somewhat more subtle way.

“I wanted to do something that was not television,” he said of his latest project. “I wanted to just be pure and do something for passion rather than work for hire. There was no other reason to write this. It was a passion project.”

“The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” 8 pm, July 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $35; $30 seniors and juniors (under 25). Hosted by The Vineyard Playhouse. 508-687-2452; boxoffice@vineyardplayhouse.org.