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Civility, self-assertion, and family connections

Withers premieres ‘Ding Dongs’ with brother at helm

Playwright Brenda Withers and her brother Jeffrey near Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where Jeffrey is directing her play “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ Playwright Brenda Withers and her brother Jeffrey near Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where Jeffrey is directing her play “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ (Steve Haines for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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WELLFLEET - Brenda Withers was raised to be a nice person, civil and well-mannered. In a lot of ways, she thinks, this holds her back.

“It’s amazing what people can get when they ask for it. It is incredible to me,’’ said Withers, 33, an actress and half of the playwriting duo (the other half being her best friend, Mindy Kaling) who wrote the Damon-Affleck spoof “Matt & Ben.’’

“When I see people who can go out there and ask for something and they get that million bucks,’’ she said, snapping her fingers, “man, I’m fascinated by it. And while I appreciate it and admire it, I also can’t help but see the parallel to dictators and to bossy people and to selfish people. So it’s hard for me to cultivate that quality in myself.’’

Instead, she’s cultivated it in what she calls the “clever bullies’’ at the center of her absurdist new comedy, “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?,’’ premiering Thursday on Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s Harbor Stage. As it begins, a man (Tom Patrick Stephens) and a woman (Withers) ring the doorbell of a house they say the man’s parents used to own. Gradually, they wheedle their way inside and proceed to make themselves very much at home. Polite attempts at self-assertion by the current owner (Marshall York) go blithely unheeded.

The play “asks how trapped we are by civility and how we’re able to do the right thing and the nice thing at the same time,’’ said Withers, now in her fourth season as a WHAT company member. “It’s not possible most of the time.’’

Workshopped last December at WHAT, the play was originally called “What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ It’s a phrase Withers came across in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,’’ in a section about differing notions of property rights. WHAT artistic director Jeff Zinn, the late historian’s son, found the reference “wonderfully obscure,’’ he said, but hoped for a somewhat more accessible title that would give audiences “a hint of what the play is about.’’ Thus “The Ding Dongs,’’ with the original name appended.

That’s one of the production’s family connections. Another is easier to see: Its director is the playwright’s 31-year-old brother, Jeffrey Withers, making his WHAT debut. So close has he been to the play as his sister has crafted it that he can’t remember when he first read it.

“All of the plays she’s written, at certain points we’ll read to see if it’s funny, if it makes sense, if it’s too long-winded,’’ said Jeffrey, who as an undergraduate followed Brenda to the theater program at Dartmouth College, then got a master’s degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama. “It’s a great relationship to have, to be able to trust each other like that.’’

Family is a label that people in theater commonly apply to their relationships with one another: a cast and crew as a family, a company as a family. Brenda and Jeffrey both embrace that construct. But the siblings, whose older brother, Terry, performs improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, say there’s a difference between that and having actual relatives as collaborators.

“The thing about theater as family is when you’re doing a show with people, they are your family: You live with them, you hang out with them - especially if you’re in a situation like this where you’re not at home,’’ Jeffrey said. “Any theater person would tell you this: You finish a show, and on the last day it’s like, ‘We will totally keep in touch.’ But it’s not the same anymore because you don’t see them every day. You don’t spend 40 hours a week with them.’’

“It’s very easy to enter into family relationships in the theater,’’ Brenda explained. “It’s very difficult to maintain them.’’

Not seeing colleagues frequently is part of that trouble - and one the Witherses, who grew up doing children’s theater on Long Island, have avoided better than even most siblings. All three have lived together as adults, Jeffrey said, and they continue to convene regularly in New York as part of an improv group they formed.

Professional rivalry, Brenda said, is another obstacle to sustaining the theater-family dynamic with colleagues after a given production ends.

“All of a sudden you’re in competition for the same role, and no matter how many good vibes one person is putting out, it’s not the same. And with my family, I actually know they would never let me down. I’m lucky,’’ she said. “I can trust my brother, as a director and as a person, 100 percent. And I can want to trust another theater artist as a director and as a person 100 percent. One I know, and one I hope.’’

“It’s funny,’’ she added. “I guess I feel like some theater families are dangerous to the theater, and not good for the theater, because you are beholden to people and you are thinking about their feelings, and it gets complicated. You don’t want to fight with them. I don’t mind fighting with my real brother. I’ll fight with him all night long, ’cause I know we’re not goin’ anywhere. When you’re friends with someone, the love is easy. The disagreement is hard.’’

Putting “The Ding Dongs’’ into the hands of someone she feels safe with was part of the reason for asking her brother to direct its first production, Brenda said. She wants to learn about the play from his perspective, but she also wants a perfectly open channel of communication with her director - who, after all, is directing not only her play but also her performance in it.

“I feel like, ah, worse comes to worst, I can talk to him in the middle of the night. I know he’s gonna listen to me. He’s not gonna say, ‘You’re crossing a line’ or ‘We can’t talk about that,’ ’’ she said. “There’s no desperation in the collaboration, which there often is.’’

Desperation is a driving force, however, for the couple in “The Ding Dongs,’’ which shifts into darker territory when it becomes clear that some cataclysmic event has befallen them, and they have been forced to flee their home. The play is an allegory, Brenda said, but she does not want to draw too direct a connection to contemporary events.

“I’m trying to come at something serious from a sideways view, instead of facing it head-on and it being an overtly political or social commentary,’’ she said. “There’s the trouble of preaching to the choir when you start writing anything with a serious bent.’’

There’s also the tendency to leave the fun out of political theater - the very reason she writes off a lot that she sees, she said. But striking the proper comic tone is a delicate task, requiring a director who understands what she’s going for. Who knows her voice better, Brenda figures, than her brother?

“Because he’s part of shaping it,’’ she said. “I wouldn’t have this tone without him.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes @globe.com.

THE DING DONGS, OR WHAT IS THE PENALTY IN PORTUGAL? Presented by Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

At: Harbor Stage, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet, Thursday through Oct. 9. Tickets: $29, $15 students. 508-349-9428, www.what.org