WE’RE in the chicken coop here,” William Mastrosimone said as he cut into a plate of chicken francesa at Nino’s restaurant here. Mr. Mastrosimone, a screenwriter and playwright who is probably best known for his 1983 work, “Extremities,” was revisiting his old neighborhood, or what’s left of it. Nino’s, part of a generic strip mall that includes a Curves, a Pets Plus and an indoor golf range, occupies the land where a neighbor’s farm once stood.
A stone’s throw away, where a McDonald’s is surrounded by a weed-choked lot with a “For Lease” sign, is the site of Mr. Mastrosimone’s former home, an apartment atop an office building his father built and rented in the 1950’s. “If you were to dig about a foot down into the tar in the McDonald’s parking lot, you’d probably find my buried toy soldiers,” Mr. Mastrosimone, 58, said wistfully.
It’s been 37 years since the state of New Jersey claimed the property, under eminent domain, to build an extension of Interstate 95. There’s no highway in sight. Instead this sleepy no man’s land stands like an unmarked graveyard of Mr. Mastrosimone’s childhood and of his father’s manhood.
“He was a smart man, but he didn’t quite get that they could take away his land,” said Mr. Mastrosimone, a stocky man who brings Dennis Franz to mind. He recalled that when a sheriff’s deputy, a family friend, served the elder Mr. Mastrosimone papers at the dinner table, the young officer had tears in his eyes. “My father didn’t understand. He said: ‘Am I arrested? What did I do wrong?’ ”
The trauma of this eviction inspired Mr. Mastrosimone’s first play, “The Understanding,” which he delivered “like an overdue baby” in a Rutgers University playwriting class in the mid-1970’s. A new version, substantially rewritten this year and retitled “A Stone Carver,” opened on Thursday at the SoHo Playhouse. It is his first New York stage production since “Sunshine” in 1989.
“The Understanding,” directed by Doug Hughes, had its premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1987, after further development and the success of his plays “The Woolgatherer” and “Extremities.” A production by Penguin Rep of Stony Point, N.Y., came to Manhattan briefly in the late 80’s but never received Mr. Mastrosimone’s permission to open.
It turns out he wasn’t done tinkering with it. “I started the play as a son, and I finished it as a father,” he said. (Mr. Mastrosimone lives with his wife and five children in Bucks County, Pa.) In the original version a crusty Sicilian-American patriarch, Agostino, barricaded himself in his condemned house with a shotgun, and his adult son finally supported his father’s defiant stance; at the play’s end the two left the property in matching handcuffs.
The current script has a more volatile family dynamic, reflecting the playwright’s conflicts with his father, whose disapproval of his son’s writing aspirations once led to a knockdown fight. He rewrote the play at the request of the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, which produced the new version, starring Dan Lauria, in June.
In real life the elder Mr. Mastrosimone left his property more quietly than the fictional Agostino. But years later he told his son, “If they can they do this to me, America is not America anymore.”
The words “eminent domain” are uttered only once in “A Stone Carver,” but this controversial concept, which allows the state to seize private property for the “public good,” has recently become an emotional and legal flashpoint outside the theater. Last year the United States Supreme Court ruled that a city could take away someone’s home and turn it over to a private developer. And last month the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill imposing stricter requirements on its use; Senate leaders have said they plan to hold hearings on the subject this summer.
“A house is a sacred place,” Mr. Mastrosimone said. “People are born there, people die there. Memories are there, and memory is one of the great treasures of life.”
Mr. Mastrosimone has used his life as raw material for other plays. His 1993 work “The Afghan Women,” for example, is based on a two-month trip that he took to Afghanistan in 1981 with mujahadeen who were then fighting the Soviet Union. He said he hoped to see it staged at the fledgling Kabul Theater Company.
After lunch he pulled his car into an overgrown lot where his father had built a popular bowling alley next to the family home. “This would be Lane 22,” he said. “It doesn’t look like much,” he said, looking around. “But out of this ground came a play.”