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Theater People: Paul Peditto's death trip

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Paul Peditto has written nearly a play a year for the past 13 years, and all of them reveal a similar urban pessimism. Two of his biggest hits were adaptations of Charles Bukowski and Nelson Algren's writings, BUK and Never Come Morning, but even his original plays are infused with an unmistakable fatalism.

The son of a TV producer responsible for the popular tabloid show Hard Copy, Peditto was raised in the affluent New York suburb of Eastchester and spent his junior year of college bumming around London. After graduation he returned to England for three years, where he spent his time writing poetry and throwing parties for "trendy little girls."

But though Peditto had all the perks that come with being born to rich parents, he--unlike others who write about the down and dirty side of city life from the comfort of a clean, prosperous existence--has earned his pessimism. When he returned to the United States in 1982, he was given a tour of an urban hell that turned him from a drifting, dilettantish Bukowski wanna-be into a hardened, hardworking writer. It all started after he met Claire.

"I was working the day shift, tending bar at a transvestite nightclub in New York City. Claire was living in an abandoned building nearby--she was basically living in the street--and she came into the bar for a drink or something."

They hit it off right away and within a week they were living together. "I was 26. She was 33." There was only one hitch. "She was a drugstore. She would do whatever you had."

Peditto threw himself heart and soul into trying to help her, going so far as to move with her to Atlantic City to get her away from druggie friends. There he took a job in a casino, and Claire enrolled in a methadone program. "She pulled out of it for a while. But she just could not," Peditto says haltingly, the pain still audible in his voice after 13 years. "I gave her all the love I could. I felt I could wear her down. But she was just, you know how drug addicts are: she would get a weekend dose of methadone and sell it on the street for some H and then go back for her Monday dose of methadone. Most people, percentagewise, don't make it."

One July day in 1985 Claire disappeared. Her body turned up in New York City. She had dragged herself back there looking for a fix and had died of an overdose. Peditto spent the seven days after her funeral immersed in writing his first play, A Fire Was Burning Over the Dumpling House One Chinese New Year, which basically tells the story of his life with Claire.

Around the same time, Peditto's brother Chris and his wife, Maria, moved to Chicago, planning to open an off-off-Loop theater, Igloo, in a former candy factory on North Broadway. Peditto sent his brother a copy of the play and Chris went wild.

For years Chris had been trying to get him to give up poetry in favor of writing plays. "Chris kept telling me, 'Your dialogue's really good.'" But Peditto kept putting him off. Dumpling House proved that Chris's hunch had been right, and Igloo produced the play in December 1985.

The play attracted large crowds but didn't always keep them. Its unflinching view of drug abuse routinely sent a "half dozen people out of the show in tears," says Peditto.

Chris, who likes his theater edgy, urban, and dangerous, couldn't have been more pleased. He asked Peditto, who was still living in Atlantic City and working in a casino, to write more plays. Peditto became Igloo's unofficial resident playwright and moved to Chicago in 1988.

"I'd write like a couple of plays a year and Chris would be like, sure, we'll put this on. In three years they did five of my plays."

Later, when Peditto's brother and sister-in-law moved Igloo to LA, Peditto remained behind, writing plays for Prop Theatre and Live Bait. Last year Peditto took the cast of Johnny Red Was a Don't Bettor, his play about chronic gambling, to a casino in Aurora to instruct them on the finer points of shooting craps. He impressed an eavesdropping pit boss with his knowledge of the game and was hired on the spot to run a craps table there. Peditto quit his job selling insurance and moved to Aurora.

Last summer Peditto returned to Claire's story when he directed Pictures of Baby Jane Doe, a low-budget film version of Dumpling House, which is currently making the festival circuit.

Revisiting the story wasn't easy for Peditto. "I've had three women die in my life," he says. "Claire. A friend of Claire's I started going out with in 1987. She died of an asthma attack. She was drinking while she was on asthma medication and she had a heart attack. It was just--bam--dead. And a girl I went out with in college. We had broken up, and she died in a car accident. She snapped her neck, and the guy who was in the car with her walked away without injuries. Chris says I don't allow any relationship to end happily. And there is a certain sadness in my work."

His newest play, 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, is a stage adaptation of Ben Hecht's journalism from the early 20s. Peditto not only revels in the gritty "urban melancholy in [Hecht's] writings," he even invents a relationship for Hecht, which, "of course, doesn't work out."

"It's been my experience, as Bukowski says, there is nothing sadder, after your lover is gone, than looking at the comb she left behind or driving by the building you once made love in."

The Prop Theatre/Live Bait production of 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago runs through April 27 at the Firehouse, 1625 N. Damen. Call 773-871-1212 for more information. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Peditto photo by J.B. Spector.

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