On Sunday night, Oz creator Tom Fontana reunited the old prison gang from his hyperintense HBO drama onstage at 59E59 Theaters for a special production. The erstwhile Emerald City bunch (including Law & Order: SVU’s Christopher Meloni and 30 Rock beeper salesman Dean Winters) took their places onstage to Oz’s clanging, percussive theme song, which elicited screams of delight from the crowd of die-hard fans who were now Pavlovianly primed to see some cell-block violence. But this would be no rape down memory lane; rather, the actors would be playing themselves — kinda — in a reading of Fontana’s new metafictional one-act farce, The Godfather, Part IV, all for a benefit for the nonprofit theater company Primary Stages and the Writers Guild of America East Foundation.
Eamonn Walker (who played activist Muslim prisoner Kareem Said on Oz) narrated the action of the play, which centered around a coffee-shop get-together of real-life friends Terry Kinney (who played Oswald Correctional’s do-gooding liberal administrator Tim McManus), Winters (inmate Ryan O’Reilly), Lee Tergesen (milquetoast turned menace Tobias Beecher), and Meloni (Beecher’s cellmate/lover/betrayer Chris Keller). The bull session eventually finds Winters and Tergesen plotting to re-create The Godfather’s famed horsehead-in-bed scene, with the egomaniacal Meloni as the victim, and Kinney volunteering to film the action for an upcoming documentary.
Why? Because (in the play, mind you) it turns out that in the years since Oz’s 2003 sign-off, Meloni has become a preening Master Thespian, who in front of his sporadically employed buddies feigns exasperation at having to work every day for the past eleven years on a hit. (After the show, Tergesen’s would-be tormentor emphatically sought to set the record straight: “That wasn’t the real Christopher Meloni!” Tergesen jokingly disagreed: “He’s such a dick!”) In the production’s most hilarious art-imitates-life-imitates-art turn, Tergesen remains in thrall to Meloni just as his Beecher was to his Keller. “It’s about putting our characters on display, in terms of Chris manipulating me, and me being all sweet and innocent … ‘cause I’m definitely not sweet and innocent,” Tergesen later elaborated. “But it shows how tight we were and how we just beat the shit out of each other, and always just having a laugh, no matter what.” Alas, all of Godfather’s violence was comic, verbal, and passive-aggressive — no stabbings, stranglings, or forced sodomy for nostalgia’s sake. But that, as well as the casts’ repeated cutups and flubbed line readings, were not only tolerated but relished by the equally tickled audience.
Post-show, Meloni attempted to nail down the show’s enduring devotion among both its fans and its ensemble. “There was something very visceral about the show,” he said. “Oz was a combination of brutality, imagination, poetry, and humanity all rolled into this thing. It was groundbreaking.” The show’s creator and Emmy-winning guiding force, Fontana, hilariously subbed in for Julianna Marguiles at the last minute; she was to play herself as Tergesen’s former and Meloni’s current squeeze, but got held up in D.C. after attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He said he wrote the play five years ago “for the guys” (the cast also included Zjelko Ivanek, who played diabolical Maryland governor James Devlin on the show) and decided to mount it for the once-every-seven-years benefit. Asked how he enjoyed breaking down the fourth wall for the riotous production, Fontana quipped, “I think my whole life is metafiction, but what do I know?”