What happens when your new friend wants to kill you

‘Not Constantinople’ by Arnie Reisman opens the new season at the MV Playhouse.

MJ Bruder Munafo and Arnie Reisman in front of the Martha's Vineyard Playhouse. — Photo by Peter Simon.

It started with a supremely odd New York Times article, as Arnie Reisman, writer, Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate, and humorist describes the genesis of his new play, Not Constantinople, opening next week at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse:

“The picture showed an elderly couple in a deli booth. Nothing special about that, except that the two people were photographed from the neck down!” Mr. Reisman described his bemused reaction in a recent interview with The Times. “The story was headlined, ‘What It’s Like to Be in the Witness Protection Program.’”

Most of us presume, from what we’ve read and seen in movies, that people turning state’s evidence are stashed away in pleasant, albeit unexciting, towns in the Midwest. But, according to the article that caught Mr. Reisman’s attention, a great number of folks in the program are stowed in gated communities in Florida.

Who are your neighbors? you might ask. Who, in fact, are you?

Mr. Reisman, who now lives year-round in Vineyard Haven with his equally celebrated wife, Paula Lyons, both of them regulars on the NPR “bluff and bluster” radio show, Says You!, could not shake his imagination free of the Florida connection. He began to write a play about two couples in adjacent condos in Boca Raton — “the fraud capital of the country!” says Reisman, something he learned in the course of his research.

Couple No. 1 includes husband Paul (Damian Buzzerio) — Paul is not his real name — married to Gloria (Jenny Allen), also a nom de disguise, who are hiding out from the mob for whom Paul, an ace accountant, once kept and cooked the books. Turns out the boss man had ordered a hit on Paul’s best friend, and the CPA’s code of omerta, his loyalty in other words, melted with the stewed record-keeping.

Now Paul has agreed to testify against his criminal clubhouse. He’s under the protection of a young, affable, but perhaps none-too-competent U.S. federal marshal, Jack Mozart (Christopher Carrick). And, no, the fed is not a descendant of the composer, only a man of Finnish origin whose family tightened up an un-American-ishly long name.

Enter Couple No. 2: Lee (Ken Baltin), a middle-aged chap with the face of everyone’s favorite uncle, and his companion, fully 30 years younger than he, Stacy (Brianne Beatrice), smart as a whip, with an existential and tense undercurrent, like a modern Simone de Beauvoir. She’s tougher than the others, perhaps because she’s a Wall Street moneymaker, and in addition to that, she’s a shooter-in-training sent to learn lessons from the master, Lee. She’s also there to make sure Lee follows through. And why is that necessary? Well, it seems that the old assassin has developed a late-in-life conscience about this particular victim. Paul is showing signs of dementia. Why kill him? Before long he won’t remember what he had for lunch.

When Mr. Reisman began work on the play, the characters spoke to him day and night, even during the wee hours, when he would wake up and dash off dialogue in the notebook he purposely kept beside his bed. I asked, “Did that experience remind you of Ionesco’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author?” Reisman responded, “It was Pirandello. And yes.”

I also wanted to know if the gangster atmosphere of Not Constantinople was inspired by The Sopranos and other villains-you-can-love series. The playwright answered, “I don’t watch much television. I’m drawn to Martin Scorsese movies and David Mamet plays.” He added, “I channeled Joe Pesci through all five characters.”

Paul, Gloria, Lee, Stacy, and Agent Mozart are stuck in a hilarious roundelay of who’s who and what’s what:

“Why don’t they have their act together?”

“Maybe they don’t have an act?”

“A bookie for the mob comes up with a career in accounting?”

“What’s with the sunglasses?”

“It’s Florida!”

“Are you really Lou’s stepdaughter?”

“What difference would it make?”

“If tomorrow is raining soup, I’ll be out there with a fork.”

Even as the characters joke, banter, and even break out in a chorus line of the old song “Take Me Back to Constantinople,” the five personae have placed themselves in dangerous territory. Here there be dragons. The deck is stacked for someone(s) to die.

As the Playhouse press release says, it’s a dark comedy.

Artistic and executive director of the Playhouse, as well as director of this play, MJ Bruder Munafo, presided over a staged reading of Mr. Reisman’s play last spring, and, drawn to it, and presiding over Mr. Reisman’s rewrites, placed it on the docket for a full staged production in the coming summer. Ms. Allen and Mr. Baltin had shone in their parts for the reading, and they were cast in the upcoming premier. Ms. Bruder Munafo then went on one of her shopping trips, auditioning actors for the other three parts in New York, Boston, and here on the Vineyard.

Previews will roll out on Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30. Opening night is Tuesday, June 2, and the show runs through June 20. Tickets may be purchased ahead of time at vineyardplayhouse.org. It’s also a good opportunity to read about the following plays of the summer season: A Walk in the Woods, 77%, Sweetened Water, and Visitors.

One last question was put to the ever-witty Mr. Reisman: Did he think any soon-to-testify folks are tucked away here on Martha’s Vineyard?

He gave it a moment’s thought, then replied:

“I can’t see a Republican majority agreeing to hide anyone on an Island most of them perceive as a luxury resort that already houses too many Democrats.” Then he pondered some more and said, “You know it appears we have a lot of raccoons in these parts, but I’m thinking a few them are just skunks in the witness protection program.”

Says You!, Mr. Reisman.