Known more as a philanthropist for the arts than an artist, Bill Balzer, 69, is looking forward to seeing his maiden play open in a theater named, fittingly enough, after himself — the Balzer Theater at Theatrical Outfit.
“Two Drink Minimum,” running today, October 24, through November 18, is Balzer’s autobiographical play about the unorthodox relationship between him (played by William Murphey) and his mother, Mary B. (Susan Shalhoub Larkin), through various stages of her life: the Great Depression, World War II and his marriage.
After he comes home from the armed services, Balzer’s character finds that his relationship with Mary B. has changed. At the age of 57 with a husband who has passed away, she expects her son to be at her beck and call, finds fault with every woman he attempts to date and constantly upstages his own family’s achievements.
“The central point of the show is how my mother was strong and negative and angry at what life had dealt her, but I never gave up on her,” Balzer says. He hasn’t taken much in the way of creative liberties; he estimates that what is on view is 99 percent accurate.
The title of the play, which spans roughly 50 years, comes from an anecdote Balzer has long told. “I would call her every Sunday, and I would need one drink to get the courage to do it and the next drink to stay on the call,” he explains.
When his wife suggested that he put into writing the stories he had been telling about his mother, Balzer opted for a play instead of a book. “I talked to some playwrights I knew and basically did a Playwriting 101,” he says. The timing was right, especially since he had retired from United Parcel Service in 1995. “Once you retire you have nothing to lose,” he declares. “What the hell are they going to do with me now?”
He settled down to write it, and it took five years to do so. Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key came to a well-attended reading in 2010, and “he told me then and there that he was interested in producing it,” Balzer says.
Balzer always felt that Murphey was the ideal choice to play him and was encouraged when two others offered up Murphey’s name for the role as well. Directed by Scott Warren, “Two Drink Minimum” also features Wendy Melkonian as Bill’s wife Peg and Matthew Myers in a variety of roles. Balzer met with Warren frequently throughout the casting to make sure the director understood the nuances of the play, but he has stayed out of the process since.
Balzer got interested in Theatrical Outfit after seeing its production of “Appalachian Christmas” in 1997 at the 14th Street Playhouse. “The next year, Peg and I decided to join the board,” he says. “We stayed on until 2010, at which time we rotated off, but we have since rejoined.”
When the Balzers first joined its board, Theatrical Outfit was seeking a permanent home. “We were renting space from the Rialto Center for the Arts, and our programming went down from 15 weeks a year to seven,” Balzer recalls. “We realized we had to close shop or either find our own home.”
The Balzers bought the neighboring Herren’s restaurant building in February 2002 and donated it to Theatrical Outfit to use as a permanent space. One of Balzer’s pleasures was being out with Peg one night and literally turning a corner and seeing for the first time the big marquee bearing the name “Theatrical Outfit.” “It was a very emotional moment for both of us,” he says. After a one-man show featuring Key at the end of 2004, the Balzer Theater had its grand opening in January 2005 with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The Balzer is now acknowledged as one of the city’s best theatrical venues. “It was very important for us to make it comfortable and to make it green,” says Balzer, who received Turner Broadcasting’s Downtown Community Leadership Award last year. “We use glass there, not plastic.”
As excited as he is to have “Two Drink Minimum” produced at the Balzer, a follow-up play depends on its reception. While philanthropy is something Balzer is well versed in, being a playwright is unfamiliar ground. “I am in a territory I don’t know much about. I know that the theater community looks at world premieres, and I’d love to see this go somewhere, have another city get behind it and want to do it too. I think it’s a show with characters everyone can relate to.”