By GUY D’ASTOLFO
“Harry’s Friendly Service” is coming home.
The play – set in a gas station in downtown Youngstown in 1977, and written by Boardman native Rob Zellers – premiered in 2009 at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
But it will finally get its Youngstown premiere this week. “Harry’s” will run for two-consecutive weekends at Ford Theater at Youngstown State University. It’s a production of the Youngstown Playhouse, in conjunction with YSU Theater.
The second premiere will be just as important as the first, and its arrival is long overdue.
“Harry’s Friendly Service” is a slice of Youngstown past, with mobsters, steel mills that are on the verge of closing and a plethora of references to local businesses and events that many folks should remember, or at least know about.
But it’s also a story about family – or people who are so close that they are like family.
With its blue-collar grit and universal situations, “Harry’s” would be at home in almost any Rust Belt city.
The entire play takes place inside the dingy and greasy gas station, where an odd mix of friends gather to play cards. It’s a sanctuary from the tough realities of the outside world, where the devastating collapse of the steel industry is looming over a host of personal issues.
There is Harry, the gruff owner with a side hustle as a small-time bookie. Harry is played by Matthew Mazuroski, who heads the theater department at YSU. He said he channeled his coal-miner father for the role.
The small ensemble cast also includes Bill Rees as card-playing chum Skiddie; Lynn Nelson Rafferty as Tina, who runs the burlesque house down the street; Anthony Genovese as the young lawyer, John; Carly Genovese (who is married to Anthony in real life) as Harry’s daughter Sam, and John’s budding love interest; and John Cox and Chuck Simon as gangsters Sammy and Carmine Carducci.
Pat Foltz, a theater professor at YSU, caught wind of the play last year after reading a mention of it in The Vindicator, and pushed to get it produced.
She figured it would strike a nerve locally, but she didn’t realize just how much. A lot of memories and stories surfaced from cast members during rehearsal.
“I love that the cast has been around Youngstown,” said Foltz, who is a Kansas native. “Everybody has a story about the mills closing.”
Some of the actors have even argued with Zellers over aspects of their characters, because they feel like they know such a person.
Zellers called it the process of a good actor shaping a role. Such familiarity with a role can’t help but add an extra layer of authenticity.
Foltz said the characters will remind audience members of real people they know.
Back in 2009, thousands of Mahoning Valley residents made the trek to Pittsburgh to see the premiere of “Harry’s.”
But the version opening this week has a few tweaks.
Zellers, the playwright, has had years to mull it over and make improvements. “I changed the ending,” he said. “I was never happy with it. There are also some language changes and cuts.”
The change to the ending doesn’t alter the plot, he stressed. “It just lands better,” said Zellers, who drove from his Pittsburgh home for many of the rehearsals.
The play, according to Zellers, is about a family, even if they’re mostly not related by blood. It’s set in a small room, with constant references to the world that is raging outside it.
Foltz agrees that family is at the core of “Harry’s,” but says it’s also about the city of Youngstown.
The director said that outsiders and newcomers also will recognize the grit and determination of the city, and its relentless drive to carry on through any hardship.
As for Zellers, he’s delighted that his play is going to be shown in the place where it all started.
“Who doesn’t want to come home?” he asked rhetorically. “I was thinking of this moment years ago when I was writing it.”
The play is very personal to Zellers, because it’s based on his childhood memories. His father was a regular at Harry’s Friendly Service – and yes, that was its actual name. The station was on East Front Street, near the current location of Covelli Centre, and no more than a mile from where the Youngstown premiere of Zellers’ play will take place.
“[My father] took me [to Harry’s] every Saturday and they played cards,” he said. “You hear the conversations, and I was a good listener.”
Childhood memories are the strongest, and they obviously remained vivid to Zellers over the years.
He sprinkled local references – including Ravers Restaurant, LaFrance Cleaners, the Boulevard Tavern and the Park Burlesque – into the script. A bet on a boxing match involving Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini is made over the phone.
Zellers said many references could go over the heads of younger audience members, but old-timers should catch them all.
The playwright is writing a sequel, of sorts, to “Harry’s.” It is set 18 years in the future, which would put it in 1995, and involves only one holdover character – Harry’s daughter.