Michael Leeds is best known as a director, but with the world premiere of his comedy, “Who Killed Joan Crawford?” at Island City Stage next week, South Florida audiences will also get to evaluate his talents as a playwright.
“I’m a director first, so I have no ego as a writer to cut,” he explained in a phone interview between rehearsals. “I’m used to working with a playwright, so I’m wearing my director hat when I’m writing.”
The Tony Award-nominated director actually started with the title. Leeds was reading about the iconic actress when the title came to mind.
“I just had to write a play to back up the title and started to imagine how that could play out,” he recalled.
A fan of Agatha Christie murder novels, Leeds drew inspiration from the mystery writer’s “And Then There Were None” and the corresponding movie, “Ten Little Indians.”
He envisioned a birthday party with a theme – all the guests would be invited to come dressed as their favorite Joan Crawford movie character. The host is a soap opera star and his friends include his publicist, writer, investor, therapist and a young memoirist. The story begins with lots of laughs until a murder is committed.
“As in all these plays and movies and books, it’s a rainy night, they’re in a cabin upstate and the road is blocked after a tree falls,” Leeds explained with a slight chuckle.
“Part of the fun of it for me is five men who are dressed as a woman, but not trying to be a woman,” he added. “They’re lumbering around the stage in heels and make-up.”
Leeds coaxed Island City Stage artistic director Andy Rogow for the production, along with another well-known local actor, Kevin Reilly. Also in the cast are Troy Stanley, Christian Vandepas, who Leeds worked with in last season’s production of “Poz,” and New York actor Barry Marcus.
Already, the play’s title has raised eyebrows. One patron told Rogow she didn’t know Joan Crawford had been murdered.
“When they hear it’s a comedy-thriller, that intrigues them more,” Leeds said.
The play has already received a couple of readings in Chicago, where it was a winner of a contest by a local theater for gay-themed plays, but the current rehearsals are shaping the production in important ways.
“The personal qualities of the characters come out more in rehearsals,” he said. “There’s also an old expression that the last actor to show up is the audience. You learn so much from them and their reactions.”
The Broadway veteran said it’s not uncommon for well-rehearsed productions to undergo major rewrites after the first preview performance with an audience. Leeds also relied on advice from award-winning South Florida playwright Michael McKeever and his partner, equally accomplished director Stuart Meltzer.
“They say writing is actually rewriting and sometimes you have to kill your babies,” Leeds said, but if the buzz coming from rehearsals is any indication, Leeds’ baby is going to make it this time.
Island City Stage presents the world premiere of “Who Killed Joan Crawford?” written and directed by Michael Leeds, Jan. 14 – Feb. 14, at Abyss Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.