Harry Teinowitz is an affable guy. When I call him up to talk about his first play, When Harry Met Rehab (opening in previews next Wednesday at the Greenhouse), we easily slip into a conversation that runs over 30 minutes, which Teinowitz peppers with sly one-liners—reminders of his background in stand-up comedy and as a longtime sports radio personality with ESPN 1000 and WGN.
Back in March 2011, Teinowitz got the wrong kind of publicity when he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. The DUI put him on the path to sobriety, and now he’s put a loosely autobiographical version of his story into his play.
Cowritten with his friend Spike Manton, a comedian and playwright who’s made a corporate career as a keynote speaker (and was also an ESPN personality), When Harry Met Rehab stars Dan Butler (coincidentally, perhaps best known as Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe, the obnoxious sports radio host on Frasier) and Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie). But Teinowitz tells me that he originally thought of writing a one-man show about his experiences largely as a way to keep busy and avoid what he calls “the r-word” (meaning relapse). “I just started writing. And next thing I know I was spilling my guts. I thought the only way is if I’m entirely honest.”
When Harry Met Rehab
11/24-1/30: Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM; Sat 11/27, 8 PM only; Sun 11/28, 7 PM only; Sun 12/5, 3 PM only; no show Thu 11/25, Sat 12/25, or Sat 1/1, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-736, greenhousetheater.org, $42-$85.
Manton saw early drafts and told Teinowitz that he needed to flesh out the characters in the support group Teinowitz described, which eventually led to the show as it is today. But the title isn’t just a play on When Harry Met Sally for the sake of cleverness. Teinowitz says that the segments in the film where the older couples talk about how they met and fell in love and the obstacles they overcame to be together reminded him in a way of the “shares” people make in substance-abuse programs, and how that slowly builds trust and connections with others.
“You know, it’s one thing to be in a meeting with a bunch of other people that are doing the same thing you’re doing and just giving everything up,” he notes. “But it’s also being in a room full of people where no one else knows you. There are people that go around and share these intimate secrets. And they’re all looking at me like I’m dangerous personnel, you know?”
While there are elements of himself in Butler’s Harry, Teinowitz is careful to point out that the characters in the group are not direct copies of anyone he’s met in the rehab process. He doesn’t even mention the name of the program he’s in, out of respect for the principles of anonymity. “Even though I’m coming up on 11 years of sobriety, by mentioning it by name and if I drank the next day, it’s like people blame the program.”
For Butler and Gilbert, doing the play gives them a chance to come back from the pandemic with live theater in a town where they haven’t performed much before. Butler brought his solo show, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me . . ., a series of vignettes about being gay based on his own experiences coming out and other stories, to town in 1996. Gilbert notes that she spent a lot of time here when her husband, Timothy Busfield, was producing the 2014 series Mind Games, which filmed in Chicago, as well as occasionally shooting some projects here herself.
Both got involved in the show through friends who were already on board. Butler is a longtime friend of director Jackson Gay, and Gilbert (who replaced Steppenwolf ensemble member Ora Jones, who was originally announced for the cast) is friends with producer Don Clark, who is also the co-owner of Chicago Magic Lounge. As a nod to Clark, Gilbert’s character, Barb, is a magician. When we catch up on the phone, she tells me, “I actually do one magic trick in our show which I’m learning next week and I’ll never tell [the secret]. I’m so excited about that, I can’t even tell you.”
The cast also includes Keith D. Gallagher, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Jonathan Moises Olivares, and Chiké Johnson, who all have extensive local credits. Says Gilbert, “They are a deeply, deeply talented group of people. And I always liken working with really extraordinary actors to playing tennis. You only hit as well as your opponent. They challenge you to be better. Otherwise you’re just hitting against a wall. These are great players.”
For Butler, the show comes at an opportune time. He had done an early Zoom reading of Teinowitz and Manton’s script, but hadn’t thought about being cast in a production until Gay called him up again, right as he was undergoing surgery for a rotator cuff. “I was drawn to the material and to the subject matter and I loved that it was a gift and you just have to accept gifts when they come,” says Butler. “Everything about it was appealing—to spend time in Chicago, and to be doing physical rehab while I’m doing a play about alcohol rehab.”
“For me, it’s not a role I would typically be cast in,” says Gilbert. “So it was a real opportunity for me to stretch and grow and be part of a really fantastic ensemble in a wonderful comedy, which is also a departure for me.”
Adds Butler, “In a situation like this, we’re all about honoring the stories being told. We need more stories and to hone them. That Harry is telling his story, and it’s in our hands, is a great honor. The whole theme of recovery at this time is so potent to me and not just limited to substance abuse at all. Just how do we all recover, whether it’s from anger or depression or COVID? I think it’s a great universal theme.”
Teinowitz stresses that it’s a comedy about a serious subject. He also reflects upon how much of his professional career was based around drinking environments. “Drinking is part of stand-up comedy, drinking is a part of acting and then sports radio? Every other Friday we would do a remote from a bar. And, you know, it was important to the show, to the station. The two biggest sponsors we had were Budweiser and Miller.”
When he first started rehab, Teinowitz says his mindset was “‘I’m not going to drink again. So I’m done having fun.’ But nothing could be further from the truth. You walk into a meeting and there’s, you know, 15 people laughing their butts off. People were there for me, so I want to be there for them.”
Collaboraction and 16th Street bring in new leadership
Collaboraction has named Saudia Davis as their new executive director, replacing Dr. Marcus Robinson, who announced he was stepping down earlier this year. Davis is the founding director for the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship, and has been instrumental in the development of the Kehrein Center for the Arts in the Austin neighborhood. In the press release, Davis notes that Collaboraction (which moved from producing in Wicker Park to Englewood’s Kennedy-King College) was the inspiration behind the Kehrein Center.
Collaboraction is in its 25th year, but their mission changed to an explicit focus on social justice a few years ago, as demonstrated through programming like their annual Peacebook Festival.
Meantime, Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, whose founder and first artistic director Ann Filmer stepped down this summer after 14 years, names Jean Gottlieb as interim artistic director. Gottlieb served as artistic director for Footsteps Theatre, a woman-focused company in Chicago, from 1991-99, and also founded New World Repertory Theater in suburban Downers Grove from 2003-2006. More recently, she founded Dragonfly Theatre, designed to provide a digital outlet for theater artists during the shutdown.
Both Collaboraction and 16th Street plan to resume live performances in 2022.