For their latest collaboration, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, old pals Joe Moore and Pat Sajak reached out to Hawaii’s Broadway star Loretta Ables Sayre, and gave her an expanded role in this stage adaption of a film. It opens June 19 at Hawaii Theatre
Joe Moore and Pat Sajak are an odd couple. They’ve literally been Neil Simon’s comically mismatched Odd Couple, Felix and Oscar, in 2001 at Hawaii Theatre and in a 2012 run at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, with the latter receiving accolades in The New York Times. Then, coming up June 19, the longtime buddies will portray another odd duo in their latest joint production: Wrestling Ernest Hemingway.
Sajak points out that their real-life circumstances also make the pair unlikely. The two lost touch after serving in the Army together in Vietnam, until more than a decade later when Sajak was watching the classic Hawaii Five-O and spotted Moore in one of his occasional appearances on the show. A call to the production company and, “We’ve been fast friends ever since,” says Sajak. “It’s an unusual relationship because obviously we’re far apart. Frequently, we’ll go a fair amount of time without talking to each other. I mean, Joe is doing the news in Hawaii (KHON), and I’m doing a game show (Wheel of Fortune) in California. How do you meld that? The stage is a wonderful way to do it. We’ve averaged (projects together) every two years or so for the last 10 or 12 years. And we may have a few more in us.”
Their shows together at Hawaii Theatre also include The Boys in Autumn in 2010 and The Honeymooners in 2004.
In addition to securing Sajak, Moore’s plays have attracted a string of A-list actors to the island, from Richard Dreyfuss to Patty Duke, James “Danno” MacArthur (from the classic Five-O) and MASH’s Gary Burghoff.
The surprise cameo star Moore reeled in for Hemingway is Hawaii’s own dynamite actress Loretta Ables Sayre. In addition to an extensive history of performing locally at Diamond Head Theatre, Hawaii Theatre, Honolulu Theatre for Youth and in several TV productions filmed on the island, Sayre has made a name for herself beyond our shores with her 2010 Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Bloody Mary in South Pacific and a subsequent 2011 reprisal of the role in her London debut of the show and U.K. tour.
Hemingway, the film, starred Robert Duvall (Walter) and Richard Harris (Frank). In the female roles were Shirley MacLaine and Sandra Bullock, but there was a lesser role that jumped out at Moore when he was adapting the script for the stage. It’s that of sassy waitress Bernice, who works in a snack shop where Walter and Frank spend time.
“I saw potential in this character,” Moore says. “It just struck me, boy, this could be such a crowd pleaser. I beefed it up a little and I thought, you know who would be great for this would be Loretta Ables Sayre.”
“We were dying to get her,” agrees Pat, “but we wanted a role that’s worthy of her talent. I think we got it.”
Fortune was on their side, with Sayre having a perfect block of time open despite a gig in New York as … you guessed it, Bloody Mary. Sayre, who has sung many times over the years at Hawaii Theatre with the likes of Brothers Cazimero, but who last acted on that stage 25 years ago (Dreamgirls), jumped at the opportunity.
“I am a huge Robert Duvall fan,” she says. “I saw the movie years ago and loved it. The way Joe has written Bernice is outrageously wonderful. I love a character with attitude, and she has it in spades.”
Moore happened upon Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) while looking at a classic video catalogue. He read the description, was intrigued, got the DVD, and 20 minutes in decided it would be even better suited for stage than film.
Author of the screenplay, Steve Conrad, immediately gave his approval, but Moore had to wait several months for production company Warner Bros. to acquiesce. The process seemed to speed up when Moore explained that the production is a benefit for Hawaii Theatre and that he and Sajak have even forgone salaries for their roles.
“It’s an unusual process because normally it works the other way, where you take a stage play and try to open it up for the screen,” points out Sajak. Moore pumped out the initial script, and a lot of Skyping, emailing, texting and phone conversations with Sajak later, the two had a polished product.
“I’d say about 65 percent of the dialogue in the play is from the film and 35 percent is original material that Pat and I wrote,” says Moore. “We hadn’t intended to contribute that much, but it would have been a very short play had we used only what was in the film. We were delighted that (screenwriter) Mr. Conrad approved everything we added for the stage.”
Moore (Frank) and Sajak (Walter) play two elderly retirees living in Florida. The former is a curmudgeonly ex sea captain who has a chance meeting with the latter.
“Pat and I both loved Odd Couple, the first play we did together, which is a lot of gags and jokes,” notes Moore. “(Hemingway) plays more like something that could happen in real life when two old guys who are totally different meet in a park.”
“I’m a little more genteel than my friend Joe here, who is a bit of a former Navy captain blowhard,” says Sajak. “Joe’s character is not one that I would normally want to spend time with. He’s fairly loud and abrasive, tells jokes and swears a lot. I’m a quieter guy, who likes to work his crosswords puzzles. To see these two guys bond and ultimately find peace with each other is a process that’s fun to watch. The challenge for us is to make these guys each, in their own way, likable enough that you care about their relationship.”
The fun thing about a behind-the-scenes interview with the two TV personalities is that they’re almost like brothers, finishing sentences for each other and poking good-natured jokes at each other.
For anyone who is starting to wonder where Ernest Hemingway features in this production, “My character Frank says to Walter that I once wrestled Ernest Hemingway,” says Moore. “Pat and I don’t play two characters where one plays Hemingway and the other one wrestles him.”
“That could be our next project,” pipes in Sajak.
“Or if things really go bad during the performance, we may just do that,” counters Moore.
“I’m not sure we’ve grown up at all since Saigon,” laughs Sajak.
Meanwhile, Sajak, who calls Maryland home when he’s not shooting Wheel of Fortune in Los Angeles, was just on Hawaii island last month filming exterior shots for upcoming episodes of the show, which will film on location in September. As for Moore, he turned down an offer to portray a local newscaster in Godzilla, as he prefers the process of being on stage.
With professional local acting opportunities hard to come by, Mililani resident Sayre is always on the go, whether on the Mainland or in Europe.
“The great part is, I get to come back home to Hawaii,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world, and there is nothing like flying home and seeing Oahu as the plane banks and your heart races, and you want to yell out loud, ‘I live there!’”
Once home, Sayre takes on nightclub gigs and concerts to spend time with her musician friends, but mostly she cherishes family time with husband David and pooch Kaimana, as well as all those things that are such a reprieve from the exciting hustle and bustle of the city — like cooking, yard work and climbing into her own bed.
Sayre’s latest projects include a movie with fellow locally based actor Henry Ian Cusick, dress, which played at Hawaii Theatre as part of Hawaii International Film Festival last year. Sayre also can be seen on a series of First Hawaiian Bank commercials currently airing. In addition to some upcoming projects on the Mainland, Sayre shares some particularly exciting news. Hawaii audiences will get to revel in her Bloody Mary role in Diamond Head Theatre’s production of South Pacific. Sayre will co-direct with theater artistic director John Rampage, who has been courting Sayre for the role since 2008. For DHT’s 100th anniversary next year, Sayre said yes.
For now, “I am looking forward to this production of Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and working on the stage with this wonderful cast,” says Sayre. The handpicked cast includes local talent Eden Lee Murray and Therese Olival, respectively, in the MacLaine and Bullock roles. Burton White, who was stage manager all those years ago when Sayre was in Dreamgirls, is now at the helm of the theater as artistic director and general manager.
“Its a lovely homecoming,” says Sayre, adding, “I have to admit, when you walk on Hawaii Theatre stage to perform, you feel like you are a part of something very special.
“And I’ve never had a chance to work with Joe, but I feel like I know Joe and Pat well because they’ve both been in my living room every night for years!”