Playwright Kristine Thatcher picked up where she and actor-playwright Larry Shue (The Nerd, The Foreigner) left off over 30 years ago with the world premiere of Waiting for Tina Meyer, a romantic comedy that the pair began cowriting decades ago and that reads in its completed form like William Inge crossed with Samuel Beckett, mixed with a hefty dollop of When Harry Met Sally.
The two-author, 65-minute romcom runs through May 23 in a streaming Zoom production from Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre. The plot is minimal: A group of strangers gather in a dive bar in New Haven on New Year’s Eve. One of them is waiting for his blind date—the titular Tina Meyer—to show up. As the taciturn bartender pours drinks, the wait for Tina Meyer spins into a bonding exercise for the disparate folk trying not to be too depressed that they’re spending New Year’s Eve in a dive bar with a bunch of strangers.
Two of them are actors in an out-of-town tryout of a new musical version of Richard III, which isn’t exactly wowing the critics or the crowds. It does, however, mean that we get to hear a peppy number, “King Richard De-Terred,” featuring music and lyrics by Shue.
For director Leda Hoffmann, running point on the production has been a consuming task for over a year, COVID making the Herculean job of mounting a show seem Sisyphean at times.
“To me this piece is about living life to the fullest. And being open to connecting to people that you might look at and think, ‘these aren’t the people I’d choose to spend time with,’ people we regard as ‘other,'” Hoffmann said. “Walk into any gathering and what’s the first thing you do? You scan the room. Race, gender, how people are dressed—they’re all things we use to determine who we hang out with, who we believe we’ll relate to. Or not.
“I think our othering of people who don’t look like us, don’t dress like us—a lot of problems could be solved if we stopped doing that,” she said.
“I love the fact that it’s set on New Year’s Eve, this night when things are supposed to be romantic and exciting, but you’re also thinking about what comes next.
“There aren’t fancy special effects or green screens—you can see all the actors most of the time. The important thing is to keep it as honest as possible,” Hoffmann added.
Thatcher, who was not available for comment, began cowriting Waiting for Tina Meyer when she and Shue were working together at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1981, where Thatcher starred as Tansy in Shue’s highly acclaimed, still oft-produced farce The Nerd. Following up The Nerd with 1983’s The Foreigner, Shue quickly became one of the most buzzed-about comedic writers since Neil Simon.
The Nerd went to Broadway in 1987, but Shue didn’t live to see it. The one-time Glen Ellyn resident was killed, along with 13 other people, in a plane crash on September 23, 1985. He’d been preparing to make his Broadway debut as an actor in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Thatcher eventually came to Chicago, where she was one of the city’s most incandescent leading ladies during the 1990s and early aughts. She also won acclaim as a playwright with shows such as Emma’s Child, The Safe House, and Voice of Good Hope (about the pioneering Black Congresswoman Barbara Jordan). She returned to her native Michigan in 2005 to head up the BoarsHead Theatre, where she was the artistic director until 2009, when the board declined to renew her contract (setting off protests from Thatcher’s many friends and colleagues). The theater closed permanently not long after. In 2015, she revisited Waiting for Tina Meyer, ultimately finishing the play and giving the debut rights to First Folio, where she’d previously performed in 2013 in Glen Berger’s solo play, Underneath the Lintel.
If there’s a connector linking Thatcher, Shue, and Hoffmann, it’s Milwaukee Rep, where—like Thatcher—Hoffmann worked for years before coming to Chicago. “Kristine and Larry were resident company members with Milwaukee, and I spent nine years there. When I first heard about this project, it was like we were linked in some weird, magical way. We had a million mutual friends,” Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann initially began working on the production in February, 2020. The ensuing pandemic makes the play hit differently than it otherwise would, she said.
“Who would have thought a plot line about hanging out in a bar with strangers would be aspirational?” Hoffmann said. “I can’t wait to be back in a crowded room, talking to people I don’t necessarily know that well.” v