A Publisher With a Writer's-Eye View

Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

Tom McCormack is a playwright and looks the part, dressed in black T-shirt, black pants and black shoes. But when McCormack pounds the table to make a point, the 69-year-old comes across like a hard-driving CEO.

Which is not surprising. He's had plenty of practice.

For 27 years, McCormack ran St. Martin's Press. As boss of the New York company, McCormack published "The Silence of the Lambs," shepherded "All Creatures Great and Small" to bestsellerdom and boosted St. Martin's annual earnings from about $2 million to $250 million.

McCormack quit the book business four years ago, then sat down to write a comedy about a power struggle in a New York publishing house, aptly titled "House." Benjamin Mordecai, who's produced 16 Tony-nominated plays, including "Angels in America" and "King Hedley II," is backing the production, which debuts Monday at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. One might expect "House" to be an insider's expose of New York's cutthroat publishing scene. On the contrary, McCormack argues that there's nothing to expose. Rapping his knuckles on the table as he ticks off his points, McCormack says with all the fervor of a preacher at the pulpit, "Everything you read about the industry--'Oh, my God, there's fewer and fewer publishers, and it's all just big heartless conglomerates'--is not just false but 180-degrees false. There are more small independent publishers, right now, than ever before in history, more first novels being published, right now, than ever before in history, more novels right now, than ever before in history!"

McCormack seems so fond of his former trade, one wonders why he left. "I hacked my way out of there with an ax," he says. "In all truth, I was losing interest. . . . I wanted to work with Harry Hamlin!"

That would be the Harry Hamlin, who's just arrived at the Falcon Theatre's rehearsal room.

Lean, low-key and preoccupied with his nine-months-pregnant wife, actress Lisa Rinna, Hamlin exudes a vulpine aura that makes him the perfect "House" cad.

In McCormack's story about the inner workings of a publishing house, Hamlin plays Ted, a conniving editor who's not quite sure where footnotes are supposed to go but knows how to maneuver his way to the corner office.

"When I first read the play, I didn't know which character they wanted me to play, and I thought, 'God, this guy's so smarmy."' Hamlin says. "Then after I found out that I was playing the smarmy guy, for my own purposes I wanted to like this character."

Smarm, it turns out, has its merits, Hamlin discovered. "As I researched the play and got more deeply into it, I've come to believe my character is the right kind of executive for the business paradigm that exists in 2001. The balance between art and commerce needs the fulcrum created by someone like Ted. However, upon further investigation--and Tom may disagree on this with me--I don't believe there is a difference between art and commerce in the year 2001. I believe art and commerce are inexorably connected, just two sides of the same coin."

By his character's reckoning, Hamlin concludes, "The Bridges of Madison County" would qualify as the finest novel ever written. "If you asked my character, as the runner of this company, 'Which book is the best book?' he'll tell you the one that makes the most money is the best book."

Before McCormack ventured into the world of publishing, he was, by his own admission, a "soft, sensitive writer."

In 1969, he'd penned a one-act staged by the Albee-Barr Unit in New York. The Unit, founded by Edward Albee to foster new work, also produced plays by Sam Shepard, A.R. Gurney, John Guare, Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson. They, of course, went on to contribute key dramatic works to the American stage. McCormack had other fish to fry: With two young children and a wife to support, he needed a day job.

"When I got to St. Martin's to run the trade division, I figured I'd work 9 to 5, then go home to scribble at night," he says. It didn't turn out that way. "I was on the job only 24 hours when the CEO came down with an ulcer. [St. Martin's then-owner] Macmillan's in London called and said, 'You're the man.' I said, 'I'm the man?' "

But McCormack says he quickly figured out one thing about St. Martin's: "This company would be dead within three months if we didn't do something, and the 33 people employed there would be out of a job. So the moonlighting pencil went away for a couple of decades."

The rival editors in "House" personify both sides of McCormack's St. Martin's persona. Like the play's literature-loving Griff (played by Chris Curry), McCormack could be a soft touch, putting an aging colleague on the company payroll so the once-great editor could collect health benefits. At the other extreme, McCormack admits, "I did some things in that job . . . I was a pragmatist--I'm not gonna spout out all the things I did."

None of his own shenanigans made it into the final version of the play, but McCormack says he observed plenty of shady behavior that he incorporated into "House," including colleagues who stole book ideas, double-crossed underlings and cut off longtime authors the minute their sales floundered. "I try to think of nasty things I did that I put in this play and nothing comes to mind, but boy, did I see other people do these things."

When McCormack emerged briefly from his workaholic regimen--no vacations for eight years straight--he scrutinized his own fictional efforts with an unforgiving editor's eye. "Several years into a novel I was writing, I stopped and I looked at it and thought, this is lucid, supple and totally derivative, and the only thing that is possibly any good is the dialogue."

So when McCormack left publishing, he focused on his strong suit and churned out four plays in three years. The stack of manuscripts found their way through a mutual friend to Mordecai. "House" emerged as the most promising, and Mordecai, who serves as associate dean of Yale University's noted theater program, arranged a reading at the university's New Haven, Conn., campus.

Suddenly, McCormack, a man who'd spent most of his adult life telling authors how to improve their work, sat on the other side of the table.

"While it was an interesting play, it had lots and lots of flaws--it was overwritten," Mordecai says. "So when the reading was over, Tom and I went out for drinks afterward, and I said, 'Well I'm gonna be honest with you,' and I told him what I thought of the play. To my utter amazement, he came back about a month later having corrected many of the things that were clearly problems."

Mordecai recruited director Steve Zuckerman to further shape the material. Zuckerman, whose sitcom credits include "Friends," "Murphy Brown" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," spent more than a year helping McCormack streamline his 16-character story into a more stage-able play with a 10-person cast.

More work is likely during the play's six-week run in Burbank. Says Mordecai, "It's a comedy, and comedies need time." Given Mordecai's track record, and considering that Manhattan is headquarters for all the major American publishing houses, a New York production of "House" would seem like a natural next step. Mordecai would only say that a Broadway run is one of several options he's considering. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have ambitions for 'House.' Exactly how that future would be manifest, I would not project for a second."

Although "House" is set in the world of publishing, parallels to corporate infighting among film and TV studio executives will likely make the play resonate for Los Angeles audiences.

"I don't know how people get the top jobs in Hollywood because I don't understand Hollywood," McCormack says. "I do know that, constantly, in publishing, people are getting all the top [editorial] jobs for all the wrong reasons. They can stroke authors, they can bring authors in, they can use buzz words, they can do everything except the last thing down here is their ability to edit.

"Luckily, a very talented few do make it to the top. You've got to have a sensibility so you respond to the work as the ideal intended reader, and you've got to help the author get that response if it's not quite there yet."

"That's interesting," Hamlin says, almost wistfully. "The idea of someone who actually helps the author with their original creation. Whereas in our business, as actors, we're totally on our own because there's nobody who says, 'Look, your performance is good, but let me just help you, let's sit down and have coffee, let me give you some notes on this and we'll make it better.' There's not enough time, and there's not the skill.

"[Film and television] directors are not editors of performances anymore; they're mainly technicians and visionaries. They're not like [director] George Cukor, for example, who would take a performance and mold it and bring it up and nurture it until it became fleshed out, ultimately, as a great performance in film."

Doing "House" gives Hamlin a rare chance to collaborate, for a change, developing his character in collaboration with director and playwright during the relatively extensive six-week rehearsal period. It also marks a return to his roots in theater.

The 49-year-old Pasadena native studied drama at Yale and earned a master's at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco before making his first hit, the 1981 sword-and-toga epic "Clash of the Titans." From 1985 to 1991, Hamlin played slippery attorney Michael Kuzak on TV's "L.A. Law" and for two seasons an action hero on The WB's "Movie Stars," which was canceled last year.

He still returns to the stage occasionally, appearing at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre, playing Hamlet at Princeton's University McCarter Theatre Company and, most recently, starring on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke." But for the last few years, TV movies have paid the bills, and Hamlin says he's grateful to have survived in Hollywood as long as he has.

Survival is what it's all about in "House," and McCormack says he worked hard to make a strong case for Hamlin's character. "At the end of the night, I would love it if some people, especially execs, go out for their after-theater dinner and defend this supposedly heartless guy, because, listen, this ship is going down, and this guy's gotta make hard decisions. If you don't make hard decisions, you'll never make big decisions."

*

"HOUSE," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Dates: Opens Monday. Plays Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 3:30 p.m. Ends July 22. Prices: $25-$35. Phone: (818) 955-8101.

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