Theater Talk with Jeffrey Sanzel

Theater Talk with Jeffrey Sanzel

From left, Phylis March, Jessica Contino and Mary Ellin Kurtz in a scene from Sanzel’s new play. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Melissa Arnold

Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, has worked in theater for more than 40 years. This spring, he is celebrating his love for the performing arts with his zany new comedy, “Where There’s a Will.” The show features a variety of personalities working to fulfill a man’s last wish — perform a play he wrote — in exchange for a hefty inheritance. But nothing is ever that simple…

The production features a cast of 17, including Long Island theater veterans Steve Ayle, Marci Bing, Michael Butera, Carol Carota, Jessica Contino, Ginger Dalton, Susan Emory, Sari Feldman, Jack Howell, Joan Howell, Skyler Quinn Johnson, Mary Ellin Kurtz, Linda May, Phyllis March, Steve McCoy, Maryellen Molfetta and Ruthie Pincus with original music by Tim Peierls. Sanzel shared the story behind the show and much more in a recent phone interview.

What’s the play about?

This is an outrageous comedy. What happens when a group of down-and-out showpeople are given the chance to inherit a half a million dollars? A man named Hiram Cedrickson was once the Potato King, and after his passing, he leaves a group of actors all of this money, providing that they perform a play he wrote exactly as he wrote it. They have to do it with no changes, from curtain to curtain call, including typos. If they don’t, all the money goes to his fourth wife, who is there following along in the script at rehearsals and at the performance. They’re very high stakes. It’s hard enough to learn lines (for a show) — imagine what it would be like if the lines are wrong!

What inspired you to write this play?

I originally wrote the play over 30 years ago, in 1985, and it sat in a drawer for 30 years, and then I took it out and did a lot of rewriting. At that time, it was my freshman year of college, and I was typing up papers for people as a side job. I’m a very fast typist, but I’m also terribly inaccurate. I make a lot of errors. And one day I asked myself, “What would it be like if people actually had to play the errors in a script?” That’s how it all came about. I’ve also always had a love for the kind of theater that celebrates (the theater and acting), so this show is about that as well.

What makes the story interesting to you?

It’s fun to watch these people with huge, very different personalities struggle and try to overcome the challenge (of the script).

Do you have a favorite character or identify with any of them?

Ever since I was 8 years old, I’ve loved (actress and singer) Ethel Merman. This show is really my tribute to her, as one of the major characters is based off of her.

Is there a message or take away from this show?

This is really about how people can come together for a shared cause and make things happen, even though they may be very different. But, of course, its main purpose is to make people laugh.

Why do you think people will enjoy it?

This is an extraordinary cast, sort of a who’s who in Long Island theater, and they bring so much reality to it. You come to sympathize for the characters and really root for these people.

“Where There’s a Will” will run from April 8 through May 6 on the Main Stage at Theatre Three, 412 E. Main St., Port Jefferson. Tickets for adults $35; seniors and students $28; children ages 5 to 12 for $20. Children under 5 are not permitted. A matinee will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 with $20 tickets. To learn more or to purchase tickets, visit or call 631-928-9100.