Peter Luce Play Readers bring on the belly laughs

The audience chats before a reading from the Peter Luce Playreaders at the Tisbury Senior Center.

For the past 22 years, a group named the Peter H. Luce Play Readers has been meeting every Wednesday morning at the Tisbury Council on Aging for one purpose: to read and discuss plays. Members take on various roles, a director gives a brief intro, and the group engages in a post-performance discussion about the play. The selections range from Greek tragedies to Shakespeare to the classics of the theater to cutting-edge contemporary material.

During the next few months, Vineyarders will get the chance to see what the Play Readers are all about. Starting on Sunday, Jan. 22, the group will present two short plays by Tony award-winner Christopher Durang. For a Feb. 7 outing at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern, the Play Readers will select two short plays (to be determined) and in March, Vineyarders will be treated to a reading of the world’s longest running show, “The Mousetrap.”  

Linda Comstock, who selected the Durang plays and who will be directing the readings, said of the playwright, “I personally identify with his sense of the absurd. He’s very funny, and very, very smart.”

Durang is known for works of outrageous and often absurd comedy. Among the many plays penned by Durang are Tony winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and Obie winner “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.”

The two one acts that will be presented as readings at the library are “The Actor’s Nightmare” and “Death Comes to Us All, Mary Agnes.” Of the former, Ms. Comstock said, “It’s about a guy who’s pushed onto the stage, who doesn’t know he’s supposed to be in this play. It’s a nightmare that every actor has had. Having been on stage myself, I can personally identify with it.”

The scene of the second play is described on the playwright’s website as “a decaying mansion occupied by a family beset by all manner of problems: conceit, hatred, selfishness, incest, and cruelty — all dealt with in an ironic, highly theatrical manner.”

“The motivation behind the play selections is to provide Islanders with big belly laughs in the midst of a dark wintry season, a healthier choice than the usual cocktail brought on by existential darkness,” Ms. Comstock said.

The cast for the two plays includes 17 members of the Peter Luce Play Readers, including Ms. Comstock, former New York stage and screen actor Paul Doherty, and John Brannen, who will play the lead in “The Actor’s Nightmare” and is also slated to direct “The Mousetrap” in March. Although the weekly readings at the senior center are unrehearsed, Ms. Comstock will run her actors through four rehearsals prior to the upcoming public performance.

The cast will represent just a segment of the Play Readers, who number around 30 or 40 during the summer months and fewer in the off-season.

“The group is made up of avid theatergoers,” said Myra Stark, who has been involved with the group since 2001. “We have professional actors, a playwright. We’re not a group, we’re truly a family.”

Ms. Comstock added, “We all share a love of the theater. The group attracts people who are interested in story structure and in psychology and what makes characters tick. We have some former professors and lawyers and writers. It’s a really interesting group of people.”

The group was founded by Peter H. Luce, a member of one of the oldest Vineyard families. “I joined in 2001 and I’ve gone every Wednesday for 16 years,” Ms. Stark said. “Peter really ran the group then. There were four, five, or six people tops. When Peter died, Leslie (Ms. Stark’s late husband Leslie J. Stark) and I were asked to run it. We wanted to do a self-actualizing group instead. That has worked like a charm.”

This democratic approach means that each month one member agrees to be the producer. That member picks four plays and asks for four volunteer directors, who do the casting and background research. The producers generally tie their selections together by theme or by playwright.

The post performance discussions are a big part of the weekly gatherings. “Everyone says that this is the best part of the group,” Ms. Stark said. “We have a discussion for half an hour that really helps develop your critical skills and enhance your love for the theater. People learn so much.”

It’s not surprising that the readings provide an educational experience, since many of the members are either former theater professionals or literary academics. Ms. Stark earned a doctorate in literature before going on to a 20-plus year career with the ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Mr. Stark attended the Yale School of Drama and acted in many off-Broadway plays before becoming a successful producer of television commercials.

“He was really a force of nature,” said Ms. Comstock of Mr. Stark, who died in 2015. “With his knowledge and inspiration, his spirit filled the room. He drew some of us out into the theater community. He is my role model.” She and other Play Readers were recruited by Mr. Stark to act in Island Theater Workshop productions.

Ms. Comstock, who recently participated in a playwriting program at Oxford University, has previously done some directing, producing, and acting. She is a member of the Vineyard Playhouse board. As a longtime member of the Luce Play Readers, Ms. Comstock has made it her mission to reach out to local organizations that might be interested in hosting public readings. This is the third year in a row that the group has performed at the Vineyard Haven library.

Ms. Stark, who works at the library, notes that the upcoming reading is sponsored by The Friends of the Vineyard Haven Library. “The Friends’ mission is to bring the community and the library closer together,” she said. “This event fits the mission perfectly.”

Peter Luce Play Readers: Tuesday, Feb. 7, at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern starting at 7 pm.