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Jamaica-raised writer brings original family tale to Queens Theatre

Eric Phelps (r.) stars as Paul, seen here comforting his younger brother Danny — played by John Garvey — in a scene from “Leaving Brooklyn.”
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Some of the best plays seem to be the ones that are inspired by gritty, poignant, sometimes humorous real-life events, and actual people.

That’s what makes Brooklyn-born and Jamaica, Queens-raised writer, Jeff Mandels’ newest endeavor, “Leaving Brooklyn,” such a relatable and meaningful story.

Directed by Tony-nominee Bill Russell (“Side Show”), this down to earth tale examines all those precious things that everyone holds dear, including family, friends, love, and for many New Yorkers, baseball. And you’re bound to find that’s what makes it a true winner.

Let’s face it. Life — the complicated, roller coaster ride that it is — is a mix of joys and sorrows. So, it’s comforting to watch and experience something familiar that you can tell was written straight from the heart.

Luckily, you can catch Queens Theatre’s New York premiere of “Leaving Brooklyn” this weekend, through Oct. 21.

So, why Brooklyn?

“Everyone in the world has heard of Brooklyn. It provides resonance,” Mandels said, explaining that it’s the play’s specificity that makes this story so universal. “The more specific the story the greater the audience engagement.”

The year is 1955. Eisenhower is in office and folks are following the Dodgers’ run-up to their first World Series Championship. The play centers around the Feldmans, a blue-collar, baseball-loving family, whose patriarch, Lee, is a former minor league baseball player. Working hard to provide for his doting wife, Dot, and their two sons, Paul and Danny, Lee tries to eke out a living by taking on various construction jobs.

While an athletic Paul has been invited to a Dodgers training camp, we come to understand that his younger brother, Danny, isn’t destined to play baseball. And a colorful Aunt Pearl, who is up from Florida, livens things up with her amorous adventures.

Before his new play came about, Mandels wrote a story called “Johnny Boy.” It all started with an Aha! moment.

“Shortly after 9/11, my daughters and I returned to New York (from Seattle) for my mom’s funeral. I rented a car and drove past the area in Jamaica where I grew up,” he recalled. “I parked the car for a few minutes and upon leaving I thought to myself, ‘I have to write a play about this place.’ And I did. It’s now called ‘Leaving Brooklyn.’”

The talented cast includes an interesting mix of seasoned New York performers, as well as one actor making his professional theater debut.

You may have seen Jonathan Gregg (Lee) in popular television shows including “Ray Donovan,” “Jessica Jones,” and “High Maintenance.” He has also performed in several plays, as did Barbra Wengerd (Dot), who also appeared on TV in “Law and Order: SVU,” “The Family,” and “I Shudder.”

According to Mandels, rehearsals were held at Ripley-Grier Studios on West 38th Street in Manhattan. And from the reading at Queens Theatre in November 2016 until opening night, the entire process took about two years.

“This is a fraction of the total time involved. From conception to its first production by Garry Marshall at Garry’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Calif., to the current production, has been many years,” Mandels said. “I stuck the play in a drawer for almost a decade to work on others and took it out again in 2015-2016 to resume work on it. Revision after revision after revision. They say, ‘You never finish a play, you simply abandon it.’”

Mandels said his favorite thing was watching the director, cast and creative crew “make magic and bring the play to life.”

The lifelong baseball fan was eager to share some interesting details about his growing up years in Queens, with TimesLedger readers.

“I very much enjoyed living in Jamaica. Good times, fond memories, first loves,” he said. “I attended PS 95, then Van Wyck Junior High and Jamaica High School.”

As an adolescent, young Jeff always played ball in the streets with friends.

Mandels moved to Greenwich Village around 1971, lived there for about a dozen years and then moved to Seattle, Wash., in 1983.

He and his wife, who is a riding instructor, currently live on a horse farm in Sammamish, Wash., about 22 miles east of Seattle.

And now, Mandels is glad to be back, visiting his hometown and debuting his play.

While writing wasn’t always his passion, looking back, Mandels said he began to notice the impact his thank you notes were having with friends and he started writing “whatever and wherever” he could.

“I took evening classes at the New School for playwriting and radio drama, and then actually started writing my first play in 1975, but set it aside until shortly after 9/11. I took a bit of a break,” he recalled.

Besides “Leaving Brooklyn,” he has written three other plays, “Speech,” “Who loves ya, baby?” and his current writing project, “Informed Consent.”

Queens Theatre’s Executive Director Taryn Sacramone said the venue is thrilled to bring Mandels’ latest production to the stage in the World’s Borough.

“I’m proud that we are producing ‘Leaving Brooklyn,’” Sacramone said. “It’s about family and the love and conflicts that come from family. It’s a true-to-life balance between hardships and joy. I think it’s a story that will resonate with our audiences.”

The message he wants to convey, according to Mandels, is that “We shouldn’t take time, or anyone we know and love for granted, because we don’t really know what tomorrow brings.”

“Many plays touch the intellect. Some plays touch the heart. Fewer plays have an influence on both,” he added.

“Leaving Brooklyn” will grace the stage at Queens Theatre — located at 14 United Nations Ave. South in Corona — Saturday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (718) 760-0064 or by visiting www.queenstheatre.org.

Posted 12:00 am, October 18, 2018
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