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Playwright keeps details of 'Down the Drain' close to the vest

Claire Canavan

The first thing you should know about "Down the Drain," a new play from A. John Boulanger and Imagine That Productions, is that it's better not to know too much.

The show, which opens today at Hyde Park Theatre, tells the story of two strangers who link up through their plumbing. A bitter, down-on-his-luck Ted (Martin Burke) discovers he can hear a mysterious and empathetic woman named Ivy (Meredith McCall) through his toilet, while she can hear him through her sink.

Ivy and Ted bond over their wildly improbable connection, which helps Ted find hope in his life again. Though the playwright and actors won't say much more for fear of giving too much away, they do promise twists, turns and (obviously) some toilet humor.

When Boulanger, the playwright and director, first got the idea for "Down the Drain" a year ago, he immediately heard the voices of his friends, Burke and McCall, in the two lead roles.

The three had worked together before, frequently at Zach Theatre, and in 2009, Burke and McCall performed in Boulanger's production of "House of Several Stories." Boulanger wrote that show while he was still a master's student in playwriting at Texas State University, and the year he graduated it won the Kennedy Center's National Student Playwriting Award.

Boulanger credits his actors with helping him work through the wackiness of that script, and for "Down the Drain" he again sought the creative input of his performers. Because Boulanger essentially wrote the script for Burke and McCall, the actors have been involved from the beginning, leading to an unusually collaborative development process.

"Every day, the actors have input," Boulanger said, pointing to a recent rehearsal when McCall unselfishly suggested cutting one of her scenes in order to improve the play's flow.

"A lot of playwrights are very protective of their words, and actors then become instruments rather than the human beings that are speaking the words," Boulanger said. Giving actors permission to play around with lines can lead to some unexpectedly rich material. "I steal lines from them all the time," Boulanger joked.

Listening to people talk and then translating their unique rhythms into dialogue is one of Boulanger's favorite aspects of writing. After completing his undergraduate degree (also at Texas State), he promised himself he would spend two years in New York doing just that.

"I wanted to hear how different people talk," he said, "because I had only ever lived in Texas." Though he loved living in New York, he returned to Texas for graduate school and found the pace of life here to be more conducive to producing new work.

Music also inspires Boulanger as he writes. When the dialogue starts to fly on the page, he creates a playlist of songs that feel in sync with the words. The songs never make it into the show, but he plays them nonstop while writing. "As the music changes, so does the scene pace, the rhythm," he said.

As for more about what to expect from "Down the Drain," the playwright and actors are keeping mum. But they do want audiences to know one thing: Though it may have started out as what Boulanger called "a silly comedy," it has morphed into something darker over time, something that he now likes to refer to as "a bleak comedy."

And just as he has done throughout the process, Boulanger gives his actors a lot of credit for how the show is ultimately received.

"If the audience cries, it's not my fault," he said with a laugh. "It's Martin's and Meredith's.

'Down the Drain'

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 28

Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.

Cost: $15-$20

Info:www.it-productions.org