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From short story to the stage: Former Valley teacher George Eastman pens popular Off-Broadway play

  • Len Cariou, left, and Craig Bierko star in “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” a play by former Florence resident George Eastman that’s now playing Off Broadway in New York City. Photo by Maria Baranova

  • Len Cariou, left, and Craig Bierko star in “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” a play by former Florence resident George Eastman that’s now playing Off Broadway in New York City. Photo by Maria Baranova

  • Len Cariou plays a feisty but aging Vermont man in George Eastman’s “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” a play Eastman developed from a short story he wrote years ago for a Hampshire Life fiction contest. Photo by Maria Baranova

  • Craig Bierko, at left, plays Alan, a middle-age son who’s trying to convince his father to move to an assisted-living home. Photo by Maria Baranova

  • George Eastman, a former Valley teacher who now lives on Cape Cod, inks the contract for “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” at Sardi’s Restaurant in New York’s Theater District. Photo courtesy of Dennis Grimaldi



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 30, 2020

Back in 2008, when he wrote a prize-winning story for a fiction contest then sponsored by Hampshire Life, the Gazette’s Friday magazine, George Eastman was thrilled.

Today, years after he adapted that story, “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” into a play, he’s even more thrilled the production is making a successful run in New York.

Eastman, a former Florence resident, in fact is so thrilled that he finds it hard to describe just what it felt like to attend the play’s opening night, in a sold-out performance at New York City Center’s Stage II, near Carnegie Hall, this past December.

“I cannot find the words to explain how it felt to sit in a theater, surrounded by a New York audience that was laughing and enjoying something I had written,” Eastman said in a recent phone interview. “Humbled would be one way to put it — humbled and grateful and amazed, I guess.”

Eastman, who taught French for years at JFK Middle School in Northampton and then for a stretch at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, is now retired and lives in South Yarmouth on Cape Cod. But it’s an active retirement: He’s at work on three other plays at the moment, while “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” originally slated to run from December to early February, has recently had its New York run extended to April.

The reviews have been good — one says the play “takes a serious subject and dusts it with humor” — and Eastman says the play’s producer, Dennis Grimaldi, a veteran stage and television producer, is looking at the possibility of bringing the production to other cities.

And though “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” is presented primarily as comedy, with some dramatic aspects, its subject matter speaks to a tough issue more and more American families face, as people increasingly live longer lives. It’s the story of an irascible but charming Vermont octogenarian, still defiantly living on his own, whose middle-age son, Alan, is trying to convince him to move to an assisted-living home — all while trying to deal with his own complicated past with his father.

As The New York Times wrote in an overall favorable review of the play in early December, older audience members in particular “could also be chilled by George Eastman’s Off Broadway play, which churns up thoughts many people studiously try to avoid.”

The two-person play stars Len Cariou as Harry and Craig Bierko as Alan; both are veteran and accomplished actors. Cariou won a Tony Award for best actor in 1979 for his role in the musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and currently plays in the TV police drama “Blue Bloods.” Bierko, who has appeared in many TV and film productions, was nominated in 2000 for a Tony for best actor in the musical “The Music Man.”

Eastman, who’s 75, says the challenge of aging is something he understands well — “They say you should write what you know,” he said with a laugh — but with this play, he wants viewers to come away with another idea, too.

“I want people never to discount that old coot who’s sitting on the porch and going on about this or that,” he said. “He’s got a back story, probably an interesting one.”

Coast to coast

Eastman, who submitted a number of his short stories to the Hampshire Life fiction contest back in the early 2000s, had an inspiration from his own life when he decided to turn his short story into a play: his late father-in-law, Jim Tobin of Northampton, who he said resisted the decline into old age, just as Harry does.

Eastman had written a previous play, “The Snow Job,” that was produced in a small theater in California in 1975, and he also taught a playwriting class at Williston Northampton. But expanding his story to a play — developing the feisty, cranky Harry into a character who could hold an audience’s interest for an hour and a half — was a real challenge, he says.

But he eventually completed a script, retitled it “Happy Hour,” and in 2009 sent it to veteran actor Gavin MacLeod (via MacLeod’s agent), whom he thought would be a good choice to play Harry. Nothing happened for a number of years, but then MacLeod contacted Eastman personally to say he loved the play but thought it was too long.

Eastman trimmed the script and then was contacted by Ron Celona, artistic director at the Coachella Valley Repertory, an Actor’s Equity theater in southern California, who said he was interested in producing the play. MacLeod, a friend of his, had passed Eastman’s script to him.

Long story short, “Happy Hour” got some staged readings in 2014 and then a four-week run — with MacLeod playing Harry, just as Eastman had imagined — in 2015 in California.

What followed was even better, says Eastman. A Los Angeles producer saw the play and contacted his friend Dennis Grimaldi in New York, and Grimaldi got in touch with Eastman and said he wanted to bring “Happy Hour” to the city — and also use the original title of the short story, “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand.”

“Dennis is a great guy, a real pro who knows theater, has tons of contacts,” said Eastman. “He was a perfect guide for this, thinking of who could be in it and where we could stage it … he had a lot of good suggestions for changes [to the script] to improve the pacing, make it more relevant to a New York audience. New York just has a little more sting to it.”

For instance, Eastman made the widower Harry’s character a bit more ornery — “He can really crack the whip when he talks” — while also revealing his vulnerability as he acknowledges his fears about aging: “I know what a clumsy old bird I’ve become,” Harry says at one point in the play.

“Harry has a very serious case of old age,” said Eastman. “He’s tough, he’s feisty, he’s proud of his independence, but he’s just not getting around too well anymore, hard as it is for him to admit it, especially to his son.”

Eastman also added more layers to the character of Alan, showing how he once feared his father in some ways and has struggled to get out of the old man’s shadow. “[Alan] has more of a back story now,” said Eastman.

It took a few more years for the production team, which includes director Karen Carpenter, to find a place to stage the play in New York. But things finally clicked in 2019, and Eastman says he spent eight straight days with the actors and other crew in October during rehearsals; he says playwrights like him who are part of The Dramatists Guild of America have to approve all changes to their scripts, so he needed to be present to authorize any requests from the actors or director.

He’s been pleased by the performances and insight of both Cariou and Bierko, both of whom have also gotten critical praise for their work in the play. And just being part of the production has been an eye-opener, he says: “It’s a two-character play, yet there’s like 40 people who put it together. And they all have a role, whether it’s doing publicity, wardrobe, lighting and sound, stage management, you name it.”

He hasn’t gotten tired of seeing his creation, either, attending a half-dozen performances so far and making plans this coming weekend to see it again with family members. “It’s been a thrill every time,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” plays on Stage II of New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through April 5. For more information, visit nycitycenter.org or harrytownsendslaststand.org.

Hampshire Life’s fiction competition has returned. Entries of 1,500 words or less can be submitted to fiction@gazettenet.com by the deadline of 11:59 p.m. March 2.