Little Rock Look Back: Broadway debut of Ben Piazza

Though he had been an understudy in the short-lived Too Late the Phalarope, Little Rock native Ben Piazza never went on in the production.  He made his Broadway debut in Kataki, which opened 56 years ago today at the Ambassador Theatre on April 9, 1959.

Piazza was the valedictorian of the Little Rock High School class of 1951. While there, he was recognized for his acting and writing abilities.  After being a Little Rock High School Tiger, he became a Princeton Tiger and graduated in 1955 before moving to New York City.

Written by Shimon Wincelberg, Kataki concerned an older Japanese pilot and a young American soldier stranded on an island at the end of World War II.  As was the case of many plays in the late 1950s, it had originally been a television play.  The title is the Japanese word for “enemy.”

Kataki starred Sessue Hayakawa and Piazza. Most of Hayakawa’s dialogue was in Japanese, so in some ways, Piazza acted in a two-character, one-person play – since he was the only one talking for most of the play.  The play was produced by Jay Garon and Bob Sokoler, with Richard Randall serving as associate producer.  David Amram provided the incidental music.  Peter Dohanos designed the island scenery.  Anne Graham provided the costume design, and Paul Morrison was the lighting designer.

The actors received high praise for their performances, but the play’s dramatic structure was criticized as being plodding and trite.  The play was directed by Alan Schneider, who would reunite with Piazza in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  a few years later.  The play would run only 20 performances, but Piazza was recognized with a Theatre World Award for his portrayal of Alvin, the young soldier.

The play was revived in Los Angeles in 2010 to good reviews.