Truth is stranger than fiction, the old adage goes, but for playwright Josh Mesnik, the truth is also certain to be funnier.
A decade ago, Mesnik, an aspiring actor in New York City, found his life in a free fall as he battled alcoholism. He moved to South Florida to enter rehab and wound up running the largest straight escort agency on the East Coast.
Mesnik’s misadventures would form the basis for a play, “Have I Got a Girl for You,” that became the standout hit of the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival and is now being given its second production at Fort Lauderdale’s Island City Stage.
“It’s a story about someone trying to put his life back together while working in a seedy profession, so it’s a clearly a comedy,” the 32-year-old said with a chuckle. “Yes, the play is based on me, although it’s fictionalized for the sake of drama.”
Mesnik never imagined he’d be pimping out prostitutes in between meetings in his first year of sobriety. He started out as the personal assistant to the madam, a former “Penthouse” Pet who turned her five minutes of fame into a lucrative business. Soon, he became a trusted employee and assumed management of the operation.
There wasn’t anything “seedy” about the business, he insists, although many of his girls would be called to turn eight to 10 tricks a day, as the agency booked more than 100 appointments a day. As a gay man working in the sex industry, he wasn’t threatening and even developed strong friendships with some of the girls.
“They weren’t necessarily the types of women you would expect — there wasn’t a lot of judgment — some were amazing and more human than you would think, some were damaged, for sure,” Mesnik said.
It was lucrative work, in any case. The girls could earn up to $20,000 a month, working about eight days to two weeks a month. Mesnik was even approached about opening his own agency:
“That’s where the backstabbing and conniving come in,” he warned.
A friend and mentor who worked as a sitcom writer in Los Angeles encouraged Mesnik to turn his story into a play. The title came from a song from the Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” and, as can be expected, the play is peppered throughout with references to musical theater.
“I had always written, but mainly for myself,” said Mesnik who kept journals and wrote short stories. “I never set down to write a play.
The Fringe Festival production, which took the audience favorite award over 189 shows, caught the attention of Island City Stage associate artistic director Michael Leeds who worked with the playwright over several months to refine the work.
Mesnik is especially excited to present the play in South Florida, “because that’s where the story took place.”
Mesnik is already contemplating a second play, again drawing from his own experiences. Even though he has been sober for nine years, Mesnik turned to an improbable profession for a recovering alcoholic: He’s the general manager and certified sommelier for a prominent South Florida restaurant.
“I’m passionate about wine. I don’t drink it, but I love it,” he said, thankful that his job allows him to earn a good living while pursuing his interests in the theater.
While he wouldn’t recommend such a career path to most alcoholics, but concedes, “I’m living my life as chapters in a memoir.”
If You Go:
Josh Mesnik’s “Have I Got a Girl for You”
Island City Stage at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale
Thursday – Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 5 p.m. through April 27
Tickets $30 at IslandCityStage.org