Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 'Hack' is back

Look in Dan Sklar’s rearview and you see “hack.” He’s been a hack writer ... well, he published a book called “Hack Writer: Poems, Stories, Plays” back in 2001, anyway. And even farther back, he was a hack, or he drove a hack. Works either way. That is to say he drove a cab in New York City, vaguely thinking it might be a way of collecting stories and characters for poems and fiction, but mostly to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly. And now, in the present, soon to be the past, he’s combining the two as the North Shore Readers’ Theatre Collaborative gets ready to put “Hack License,” the Endicott College professor’s new play, under the microscope. The play, which gets its first full reading this Saturday at the Actors Studio, looks at the life of Maryanne Hobson, a Louisiana-born belle making it as a cabbie in the big city. She’s not DeNiro, and this is not “Taxi Driver,” even though it takes place in New York, mostly around 57th Street, mostly in a now-defunct Checker cab. The story is funny and touching, not dangerous and creepy. Her fares spill their guts, using the friendly, pretty Southern stranger as a sounding board, trying to sort out their issues. As she helps others, she ultimately reveals herself through her interactions.

She’s 22 years old, roughly the same age as Sklar was when he drove, back in the late 1970s. He was a young punk not experienced enough to know he should be scared — and, he admits, a little too trusting. Which means that the fare bounding around in a bathrobe not far from Bellevue would be a challenging — and unprofitable — run, that he would get stiffed and attacked — nothing too serious, but still ... He picked up everybody. Yeah, you’re supposed to by law, but not everyone does. You can tell, by cabbie radar, whether a potential fare will be a good tip or possibly a bad trip to a nasty neighborhood.

Sklar was also acting and getting a master’s degree in English from New York University. He eventually fled the city with his wife, Denise, and settled on the North Shore and into a position at Endicott College. His poetry has been published in a variety of publications. He followed up “Hack Writer” with “Bicycles, Canoes, Drums,” a collection of recent work, in 2008.

The Hamilton writer made his Newburyport debut as a playwright and an actor at the 2010 New Works Festival. His short play “Sleeping with the Cat 1963,” is about two female spies at the end of long careers letting their guards down and feeling and trusting again, no easy feat. He also performed in “Knowing,” a comedy by Gregory Hischak.

It only took about 30 years to get around to writing about the cabbie’s life, although Maryanne’s story is nothing like his experience. He never picked up his estranged mother as a fare and had her deny knowing him, even though everyone knows she is. He never had anyone give him a collection of Walt Whitman letters as an incredible literary tip. And the cab never became an escape, a refuge for him. But, like all hacks, he collected stories — and ultimately, “Hack License” is a story about people and the problems that make up their lives.

The production features performances by Missy Chabot, Catherine Colby, Sandy Farrier, Stephen Sacchetti, Mary Shapiro, John Sheedy, Scott Sullivan and Victoria Townsend. Haley Klein directs.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative will stage Dan Sklar’s “Hack License” at 10 p.m. March 13 at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., Mill #1, Suite #5. A talkback session follows. Tickets are $13 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978.465.1229 or log onto

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