by Tom Diriwachter · July 18, 2015
My play, Great Kills, produced by Theater for the New City, March 26 - April 12, 2015, features a get-rich-quick scheme as its plot. Mr. G (Joe Pantoliano), with the shuttering of Meadowbrook, the state mental institution where he works in maintenance, is being forced into retirement. As the buildings are gutted, the vintage stainless steel furniture -- "the kind of stuff you find in a doctor's office" -- is lying abandoned in a field. When Mr. G happens to mention this to his son, Tim (Robert Homeyer), moved back home after losing his job as an adjunct literature professor, and dumped by his fiancée, he sees this as an opportunity for a big score. To finance the plan, he looks up his estranged childhood friend, restaurateur, Robert (Peter Welch). During the course of a drunken evening, as the men get in over their heads, they scheme against one another, their failures are exposed, and a devastating family secret is revealed.
The plan is simple enough, and it is a foregone conclusion that the men will fail. In that sense, the plot is a McGuffin -- with the institution's furniture serving as a Maltese Falcon of sorts -- a way into the lives of the characters, and their more interesting personal stories. One such story, is the closing of Meadowbrook. In the wake of a scandal, uncovered by a charismatic broadcast journalist, who reported conditions, and the treatment of patients, as horrific, the institution is being decommissioned. Mr. G, who is not involved in the scandal, is made to shoulder the burden of shame for a lifetime, while calling into question the journalist's methods and ambitions.
The story of Meadowbrook closely parallels an infamous story that took place in Staten Island in the 1970s, that of Willowbrook, broken by Geraldo Rivera, who became a star reporter overnight. Willowbrook has a tarnished reputation, forever associated with the dark days of mental health care. My father retired from Willowbrook after twenty-nine years in the maintenance department. For him, Geraldo was not a crusader, but a charlatan, seizing the opportunity to become famous. He has long maintained that Geraldo focused on the worst patients, and the most extreme circumstances, while ignoring the more humane side of the story, the dedicated caregivers, and the successes. Geraldo's follow up documentary, "Willowbrook: Ten Years Later," post reform, depicting the patients living in group homes, and caring for themselves, my father declares, was a sham, in that they weren't the same patients, but rather, much more highly functional patients.
Whether Geraldo Rivera's Willowbrook exposé was a case of hard-hitting investigative journalism, or muckraking, is open to debate. Anyway, it's a moot point, for Great Kills is not concerned with the nature of journalism, or the mental health care system, but rather, the repercussions suffered by a decent man and his family, on the periphery of a scandal. Mr. G: "Thirty-seven years, I worked at Meadowbrook. Pretty soon all those buildings will be gone. All that paint and sweat. And everyone'd just as soon forget about them." At Great Kills conclusion, Mr. G is a beaten man, his family torn apart, home in disrepair. Growing up, during the height of the scandal, night after night, I overheard my father expound on Willowbrook to my mother at the kitchen table. For years, the name "Geraldo Rivera," around our house, was uttered in contempt. My father, who retired as paint shop foreman, took pride in his work. He was not a part of the bigger issue of mental health care, certainly, he committed no wrong doing. Humbly, he sums his career up thusly: “We never killed ourselves. But we got the job done."
The former Willowbrook is now The College of Staten Island, a modern, if drab campus, some of the buildings scarred, where new brick is juxtaposed with old brick, or an entrance has been sealed off. On the side of the Education Building, partially obscured behind a pink begonia bush, is a faded, encircled "19," along with a plaque inscribed: “To honor those who struggled here on the grounds of the Willowbrook Institution we preserve this former building number...” My father painted that number. Seventeen years after his retirement, four decades removed from the scandal, when my father speaks of having worked at Willowbrook, he does so with trepidation. I wasn't sure how he was going to react to the play, and the fictionalization of his life, what emotions it might conjure up. We drove in together for the first Sunday matinee. It thrilled him to see his story told. When Mr. G says, "He went in there with the TV cameras. And he showed the worse kids. The ones where there was nothing you could do for them. And he used it to get famous!" he couldn't help but respond, "That's right!" A small portion of his dignity was restored. Great Kills is the story of a man who got the job done.