I met Michael Tolan at the Players Club, the venerable actors' haunt on Gramercy Park. Tolan is unmistakably a man of the theatre. He can command a space -- room, stage or screen -- with his resonant voice, his height, his bold facial features and mane of thick actor-length hair.
Tolan discovered and directed the first presentation of the Pulitzer prize winning play, "Wit". More recently he discovered a play called "Flights of Angels", and feels the same enthusiasm. More about the play later. First let me tell you about the man: Tolan won't call himself a renaissance man, but he's done it all. Acting for starters: Broadway, in some rather classy productions such as "Hatful of Rain" and "A Far Country." Film, to name a few: Fosse's "All that Jazz", George Stevens' epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" -- and both regular roles and multiple guest spots on television series such as "The Doctors" and "The Nurses", "The Senator" (with Hal Holbrook) and "Mission: Impossible".
"I did about seven shows on Broadway, some of them long running, but I discovered that not all of them were the kind of theatre I had come to New York to do. So, with Wynn Handman, I started a theatre, The American Place, to try to do more serious work." At The American Place, he personally developed and produced Robert Lowell's "Old Glory", which featured Frank Langella in one of his first major roles. Then came Faye Dunaway's New York breakthrough role in William Alfred's "Hogan's Goat" and Ronald Ribman's "Journey of the Fifth Horse" (in which he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman) which were preserved for posterity on PBS. American Place was one of the first New York Off-Broadway companies to do new plays; today it's the norm.
This led Tolan subsequently to an incredibly rewarding career doing television and film. But he wanted to get back to his roots in the theatre.
Six years ago, Tolan decided to utilize the Players Club 150 seat theatre as a venue for production. He launched the "Plays by Players" series, which included productions of plays written by Players Club members: Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" with Philip Bosco and Faith Prince; and the George S. Kaufman classic "The Butter and Egg Man".
Tolan expanded the program to include new plays including Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning "Wit" which starred Marian Seldes. He's been nurturing "Flights of Angels" since 1996 when the show was first presented under the auspices of The Players.
"The play absolutely knocked me out," Tolan told me. "It's about a group of young paratroopers who land in Normandy. It takes place in a small town in France just before they make one last dangerous jump over the Rhine."
"Flights of Angels" comes from multi-talented author, John Kallas, also too modest to call himself a renaissance man. He's not only a playwright, but author of a score of nonfiction books as well as a film maker with two major films to his name: Tony Imperiale...Portrait of White Militant and The Red Devils. He's had a life in academia, teaching at the New School, SUNY, Farleigh Dickinson and full time teaching film at NYU. Son of immigrant parents, Kallas' first biographical work was the book "Growing Up As a Greek American", which sold over 60,000 copies. Autobiography figures heavily in "Flights of Angels" too: the very young Kallas fought in World War II. The play revolves around an American Corporal's struggle to marry his French sweetheart before his division leaves for Germany.
Tolan's good friend, John Raymond, who is the Managing Director at The Emelin Theatre in Westchester, caught the Player's presentation and vowed that the show would have a life. The two are co-producers, but Tolan is adamant about giving Raymond top billing. Because Tolan is so passionate about the new play, he has been the outside man for the production, away from the theatre and rehearsals, drumming and promoting the show which he loves. He even handed over directing reins for this production, giving his blessing to director Ted Story, who was his directing confederate in the "Plays by Players" series.
Little is subdued about Michael Tolan's persona. But at this particular juncture of his career, this play has become more important than the personality. He is channeling his enormous vitality into the new work. We'll see where "Flights of Angels" lands next.
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