New Playwright Ready to Deal
by Peter Stack
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, August 7, 1997

Tess Collins knows what makes audiences antsy, since she's the house manager of the Curran Theatre and her house is visited by 8,000 people a week. She's hoping her insights will work when it comes to her own show—her first play.

Collins' work, a dramatic comedy titled "Tossing Monte"—"a wicked little play about love, ambition and betrayal"—opens tonight at tiny 450 Geary Studio Theatre, with only 49 seats. The playwright herself will be working the ticket booth.

"From watching audiences for 20 years, I can say there aren't many people who can sit through a two-act play that is more than 90 minutes long," said the writer with a toss of her long red hair. "My play's a one-acter, and it's 90 minutes," she added quickly.

People would think being the manager of a major theater like the Curran, home of the phenomenally successful "Phantom of the Opera" for 3 1/2 years, would be a natural for a budding playwright.

"I don't think so," said Collins, 39, daughter of a family of Kentucky coal miners. "The thing is, you get so little time to yourself. And you work an odd schedule that would drive most people crazy. It's not all that conducive to being a writer."

Collins works day and night at the Curran—10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. That's six days a week, only Mondays off. She troubleshoots, supervises ticket sales and 50 employees of the Shorenstein Hays Nederlander Organization, and makes sure all the money goes to the right places.

But a strong sense of order and an "emotionally driven need" to write keep Collins punching the keyboard of her Powerbook early mornings and late at night.

A one-act play wasn't enough for Collins, who left Kentucky after finishing college in Lexington with a degree in journalism, "was driving through San Francisco one day about 20 years ago" and never left. She recently scored success with her first novel, a thriller titled The Law of Revenge, that the Ballantine Publishing Group's Ivy Books just put on the stands. Warner Bros. has an option. She has a contract for two more books featuring her fictional heroine Alma Bashears, a street-savvy San Francisco lawyer who grew up in Appalachia, where Collins lived in a town so small there wasn't even a movie theater.

"The publisher wants me to do book signings, which I find grueling, and I'm in rehearsals on 'Tossing Monte' as well as working at the Curran," said Collins. "It seems like a whirlwind."

That whirlwind has cut into her writing time, but Collins figures that's part of the writing game she started with "adolescent angst poetry" at age 16. She got addicted to books in the Middlesboro, Ky., public library ("I started with Nancy Drew mysteries and worked my way around the place"). Collins still has her poetry—but it's buried in a desk drawer in her apartment, a block from the Curran.

"I used the advance from the book to finance the play," she said, but wouldn't talk specifics about money.

"Tossing Monte" gets its title from the card game in which three cards are put on a table and a player is asked to pick one. The dealer slides the cards around and the player tries to guess which is his. The choice is almost always wrong, though, because Monte is one of the most popular street con games.

Collins' play is set in a seedy lounge on the outskirts of Las Vegas and focuses on two men and a woman. The woman is a lip-synch entertainer who wants to be a singer, one of the men is a magician, the other the lounge manager. The play stars Zachary Barton as the woman, and Ken Sonkin and Lawrence Hecht.

"I use the game Monte as a metaphor for love," said Collins. "Both men want the woman, who is named Regina, since she's like the queen in a deck of cards. I've explored ideas about the learned magic that the magician dazzles with, and the real magic that is what true love should be all about. That's the magic Regina is looking for, but her search is confused by the sleight-of- hand magic, where truth is constantly manipulated. To me, that's what happens in love a lot."

Collins said she drew on her experience for the play. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say a lot of men prefer casual sex with mindless bimbos to having a real relationship. I've never been married and I've lost my share of men, but that's what comes of working on Saturday nights," she said with a laugh.