Lee, a man for all people

Beck Lee, right, with Brendan Coyle, star of "Downton Abbey." [Click on image for a larger picture.]

By Orla O’Sullivan

Who knows, Beck Lee may someday add Cork’s Everyman theatre to the list of those he represents. He’s certainly an advocate for all.

Lee is the publicist for the annual Irish theatre festival, Origin’s 1st Irish, yet any Irish connection is well buried in Lee’s roots, which go back 12 generations in the States on his father’s “WASP side” and three on his Italian mother’s.

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Nor has he a drop of Jewish blood, yet he is, in his own words, “one of the most active representatives for Jewish theatre in New York” and was instrumental in re-establishing Yiddish as a relevant and dynamic medium for telling stories on stage.

Last year he helped the New Yiddish Rep bring “Waiting for Godot” in Yiddish to a Beckett festival in Northern Ireland, then back to New York to participate in Origin’s 1st Irish.

Lee has helped see 1st Irish — the only annual showcase of Irish theatre in the States— grow from humble origins in 2007 to an event very widely reviewed, including, invariably by the New York Times, the high bar. Lee got involved by chance when someone doing design for 1st Irish mentioned him to festival founder George Heslin.

This month Lee himself is the story. He’s having a reading of “Subprime,” his first play in 15 years, at an industry gathering in Gramercy Park on April 20 and 21. Appropriately, it takes place in the landmark home where a fundraiser was held last summer to launch the Yiddish Godot.

“What? Me? I don’t have a publicist,” Lee joked, when contacted by the Echo. Yet, he is the story in more ways than one.

What began as Lee and his wife, Andrea Iten Lee, joking in bed about their neighbors became a test of their own marriage. “My wife and I conceived the story and I started writing it. The process of writing the play brought a lot to the surface.

“Our marriage eerily shadowed the play, without it being autobiographical,” Lee said. Themes such as marital denial about finances resonated for the real-life couple. Fortunately, their six-year union “survived the shock depicted in the play,” he said.

“Subprime” was described as “Virginia Woolf with cell phones” by Marvin Himelfarb of Fox News, a friend of Lee’s who attended an earlier reading. This will be the third and, Lee hopes, last reading before a staging.

The play’s tagline is: “Two Minneapolis couples travel to the Big Apple for a weekend getaway nobody can afford.” It was written a year after the 2008 financial crisis, rooted in subprime mortgage lending.

Minneapolis is Lee’s adopted home. In contrast to all the blow-in, wannabe New Yorkers, Lee grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but recently “crossed the line” by getting a Minnesota driving license and registering to vote there. His wife and son live there and Lee commutes from New York.

Yet, Lee’s fondness for cream suits and for bow ties on special occasions, coupled with a slightly distracted, congenial air, suggests a Southern gentleman or university professor before Midwesterner.

His own university career was in the Northeast at Wesleyan. He curtailed his expectations of being a famous playwright “within weeks of graduation” in 1982, when he began a stint as an advertising copywriter. A career as a theatre publicist followed. Working with the renowned Broadway producer Arthur Cantor, was tantamount to “a post-doctoral education in theatre PR,” Lee said. He opened his own agency within two years, Media Blitz, established in 1994.

He circled back to playwriting by chance with “Subprime,” of which he said, “I’m now on the frontier of a commercial production.”

Quality actors have supported the work, he added, with Tony nominee Annaleigh Ashford (“Kinky Boots”) having read last time and Alison Wright, a British actor currently on the cable show “The Americans,” to read later this month.