The Return of ‘Eddie Coyle’
A New Production of The Friends of Eddie Coyle Comes to Boston
The Friends of Eddie Coyle created a new idiom in American culture. The lineage is easy to trace, and damn near impossible to miss. First published in 1970, as a novel by George V. Higgins, it travelled from there into the hands of Elmore Leonard, who hadn’t yet tapped into the language that would allow his characters to animate the pages of crime fiction. Eddie Coyle changed that for him, as Leonard himself has testified many times. From there, the influence of Higgins’ novel multiplied, repeatedly and exponentially.
It was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum in 1973, after which its influence became a multi-media affair. The novel and movie both became substantial sources of inspiration for filmmakers, playwrights, and fellow novelists alike. The art of making bad guys riff humorous on the mundane details of life travelled all the way up to, and then included, Quentin Tarantino, whereupon it rolled over yet again, and kept going. But it had started with Higgins, who’d had a chance to case Boston’s underworld from the inside before making his score. He’d been an assistant U.S. attorney working the criminal courts, and Friends was the first big hit he made off of his time there.
Now The Friends of Eddie Coyle is returning to the city of its birth, where playwright Bill Doncaster is staging an adaptation, at Oberon on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. (The performance will run from Dec. 8 to Jan. 15. Visit here for more information and/or to make a contribution.) I recently talked with Doncaster about the production.
Do you remember exactly when and how you decided to adapt The Friends of Eddie Coyle?
Yes. A little over two years ago, I’d never heard of it—despite growing up in Somerville and being reasonably well-read. A co-worker looked at me like I was an idiot for not having seen the movie. I grabbed the book, I try to read books before seeing the movie. I was in love with the dialogue immediately—by the third chapter, I was convinced it was incredibly theatrical, and was completely caught by the dialogue. These were incredibly tense scenes—with really high stakes. Nearly everyone is lying, nearly all the time—and it had a warped sense of humor under everything. There were some practical challenges to doing it as a live show—cars being a big one—but I knew if it could work, it would [provide] roles actors could really run with.
I wrote it over a period of six months, then in July(ish) 2010, I contacted the estate to see if I could get a “go” for a free staged reading. The answer was yes, Higgins’ wife and the estate’s agent came. They joined about 175 people in the back room of a Somerville bar. It went really well—we decided together to take it to the next level.
Because the book is so dialogue-heavy–because dialogue is, in fact, the book’s greatest virtue–it lends itself particularly well to adaptation. What was the biggest challenge in adapting it? Was the biggest challenge giving it life outside the nature of its source material?
In a word: Cars!
There are ways to have an audience use their imagination to see a scene as occurring in a moving vehicle, but none of those methods gel with the gritty realism of the story and the dialogue.
But it’s not just removing the physical vehicles—an important component of the story is that everyone is moving constantly. Very few events take place in the same place as an earlier scene, and there’s a sense of constant travel, of running from one place to the next to conduct business. That’s one of the reasons we’re producing it at Oberon—a nightclub space with catwalks, risers, and with sightlines that allow us to get some of that sense by placing the action throughout the performance space.
But a lot of it lenda itself easily—and not just because it’s 90% dialogue. The scenery—which is stunning in the film—is not very necessary to the action. Yes, you know where you are—a bar, the Boston Garden, a trailer in Orange—but there was never a need to think in terms of elaborate sets. The “scenery” is already contained in dialogue in a lot of ways, and good lighting can enhance that, but a massive operatic set would only be a distraction.
What other productions have you scripted or staged, at Oberon or elsewhere?
I’ve primarily worked in shorts and one-acts, and about 30 or so have been produced. Eddie Coyle is my first full-length (though I’ve written two I’ll start trying to do something with next spring).
I’ve been produced in festivals in Boston, New York, Chicago, Florida, Louisiana.
Have you typically worked with crime-based material? Have you done any other adaptations?
To tell you the truth, I’m not that into crime fiction, and it’s an area where I’ve developed some strong feelings about the book’s legacy.
Higgins himself hated being labeled a crime writer, he thought he was a novelist and I agree with him. I think it’s been on the wrong shelf of the book store all these years, and his work was far more innovative and influential—it’s a very artistic book, though the subject matter is certainly not pretty. Part of the reason the dialogue felt so familiar and comfortable for me is, in part, I grew up in the same neighborhood as these guys and to me this is the way people talk—but I hadn’t ever read it in a novel before.
But the other part is that his methods and techniques of writing dialogue have been emulated (I won’t say copied) by a lot of people. You can see it plain as day in David Mamet’s work—I read him differently since happening upon Higgins. Quentin Tarantino’s screenplays owe a lot to Higgins. And you can see his influence, especially in film, far beyond the crime genre. A lot of people listened when Elmore Leonard said if you want to write good dialogue, you need to read Higgins. I won’t say any of these writers “stole” or “copied” his style–but it’s really evident they learned a thing or two from him.
More than that, I didn’t approach it strictly as a “crime story”—this isn’t about good guys and bad guys, there really are no good guys. It’s about a bit player in a dangerous set of events, and I usually compare Eddie Coyle to Willie Loman more than any figure in a crime story I can think of. Dillon is a lot like Iago in Othello.
And as much as I can talk about Eddie Coyle in a literary sense, I also love—LOVE—that it contains one of the very few poignant portraits of a Bruins fan in all of literature. It’s a single scene, yes, but art’s done a lot for baseball through the years, and hasn’t done crap for hockey.
That’s a long winded way of saying it’s like Death of a Salesman, with guns and hockey.
Oh, and no other adaptations. Never wanted to before.
How was it, working with this cast of actors? Had you worked with any of them before?
The guy playing Eddie, Paulo Branco, has worked with me the most. I think he’s done seven or eight of my plays, and always in a way that’s hard to forget—strangely always as a character named “Eddie.” I tend to use the same names over and over. He’s a pretty fearless actor and I had him in mind on the first draft—it helped to approach the script being able to “see” who might play it. On this, I like that he’s also an East Cambridge guy—Eddie Coyle’s from Cambridge too. Yes, I know, it gets associated with Southie a lot, but if you read close, Eddie grew up in Central Square.
As for the rest, Rick Park playing Dillon I’ve known more than twenty years. He directed a play of mine once, and is well-known in Boston theater circles, and deservedly so. He’s probably more known as a comedic actor (I think he’s done about 2,000 Shear Madness performances), and is one of the funniest playwrights I’ve ever known. I always liked usually comic actors in more dangerous roles, and he’s powerful in this.
Peter Darrigo (Jimmy Scal) I’ve known vaguely since high school (he grew up one street over from Alex Rocco’s childhood home and not far from me) actually heard about it and nailed the daylights out of an audition. [Rocco played the same role, in the 1973 film, as Darrigo does here.] Tom Berry as Foley and Jen Alison Lewis as Wanda were actors we’ve seen over the years and just love their work. Jeremy Lee was an ensemble player at the staged reading last year—when the actor playing Jackie was unavailable, it took us two seconds to bump him up.
All of those actors were with us for the staged reading last year.
Some new cast members have been cast through private auditions by referral of our cast and other friends. The oddest one is a recent casting—Joanna Nix is playing Andrea (the student radical looking for machine guns). Maria Silvaggi, our director, and I worked with her when she was 12 in a short play called Full we won some awards with. Turns out, she’s 19 now and can still act like crazy.
Would you like to see this production of Eddie Coyle generate a new civic pride in the source material and the milieu it evokes?
You know? That’d be nice–but what we’re really looking for is for people to have a good time.
There’s a lot of people out there that don’t go to the theater much, and it seems there are even more that never go at all. Sometimes it can get a little high-brow, sometimes it can get a bit preachy, and it’s not hard to find people who haven’t seen a play in five or ten years and say they don’t “like” theater. This is a good story, intelligent but accessible, very serious but with a great sense of humor, and looks back at a very real and fascinating slice of history that’s unique to greater Boston. Telling it live, hanging with an audience to see it, is a really good way of telling the story.
We purposefully sought a venue with a bar in the performance space, because it’s the type of story where people should kick back and have a beer or three (maybe four) to really enjoy it. Sometimes theater can get a little too serious, or on the other side, too campy. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is neither of those extremes.
If people walk out wanting to read more Higgins, that’s great–it’ll tell us they left wanting more and that’s a good thing for us to hear. But, mostly, we’re looking for the audience to leave thinking it was time well spent with a good story. Extra bonus if they leave telling their friends they gotta see it.
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