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Playwright tells stories for his own audience

Fifteen minutes before the lights went down on the opening-night performance of Dave McLaughlin's "Back to Before," the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts was packed.


It was an extraordinary turnout for a new play by a little-known author, and a notably eclectic crowd. Celebrities (screen actor Mark Wahlberg, "Saturday Night Live" cast member Amy Poehler) perched on folding chairs in the 90-seat theater, alongside local luminaries (Boston City Councilor John Tobin, South Boston author Michael Patrick MacDonald). The playwright's parents (Francis M. McLaughlin, a Boston College economics professor, and his wife, Clare McLaughlin, a career teacher) sat in the best seats in the no-frills house, along with four of their 11 children.

It was Dave McLaughlin's audience -- and not just because it was made up of family and friends, said the 32-year-old playwright, who also directed "Back to Before." The crowd represented the cross-section of academics, artists, civil servants, and small business owners whom he writes for.

"I hope my plays are accessible to a mix of people, not just to people who drive in, pay $100 to see a play, and hurry home," McLaughlin said.

He basked in the "warm, communal experience" of small theater six years ago, when he produced and directed his first play, the Irish-American family drama "God Willing," at the Burren, an Irish pub in Somerville's Davis Square.

At the time, McLaughlin had just finished filming "Southie," an independent movie that he co-wrote with the actor, writer, and director John Shea.

"Film is generally perceived as a big deal, and I learned more in the process of making that movie than I could have if I'd gone to film school," he said.

"Independent filmmaking gets talked about as if it were a pure form, when, in reality, it's full of all the mixed motives in the movie business. It's populated by a lot of people who are using it as a vehicle to get them to the next project that will make them a lot more money," McLaughlin added.

After several weeks on a film set, he relished the intimate, comparatively low-stakes world of making plays.

"The experience of putting on a play in the back room of a pub, where everyone pulled together to tell a story, was completely different," he said.

"We had a full house every night, and afterward we would walk into the pub and talk about the play with people who'd seen it. It was much more true to the origins of theater, and the Irish perspective on theater, which is natural and not pretentious. It's an extension of storytelling."

As fond as he was of the homey ambiance of the Burren, McLaughlin and his wife, Beth, a post-production producer, moved to Los Angeles in 1998, in hopes of garnering experience.

McLaughlin has written scripts for several companies, including Dimension Films/Miramax, but none has seen the light of day.

The LA stint was a mixed bag for the couple, McLaughlin said. They moved back to Boston last year.

McLaughlin, who has tended bar and worked in an assortment of other odd jobs to support his writer's life, went to work in the communications department of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a job he says he genuinely enjoys.

"I'm kind of in love with Boston, and this job gives me all kinds of lenses through which to live in and look at the city," he said.

What's more, he added, as the city's development agency, the BRA has spearheaded projects he considers important, such as the building of two theaters that are scheduled to open next fall at the BCA.

McLaughlin's impressions of both his hometown and LA serve as a backdrop for "Back to Before," which tells a story of identical twin brothers, Terry and Aiden O'Toole (both played by Lance Green).

Aiden, a gambler and neighborhood player, is stabbed to death in a Boston pub on St. Patrick's Day. Terry, a writer and dreamer, impulsively marries and moves to Los Angeles, where he and his wife are living an unhappy existence as the play begins.

The renderings of life in both cities resonated with MacDonald, the South Boston writer, who moved to the West Coast after publishing his best-selling memoir, "All Souls," and who recently relocated to New York.

"Dave really shows the contrast between Boston neighborhood people -- who are connected, who all have nicknames, who bounce off each other and tell jokes and great stories but clam up about emotion because they're Irish -- and Los Angeles," MacDonald said. "People in Los Angeles don't tell stories. They talk about celebrities. It's shocking.

"And I think a lot of people who move there from Boston can't write or can't create, not just because they miss Boston, but because there are no stories. There is no art in LA.

"I think that's why Dave came back and wrote this play."

Maureen Dezell can be reached at

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