Late Summer Scene: Working up a Play in Socrates Park

Two men on stage, next to "be a teller" sign

Kyle Masteller (left) and his costar and director, Jeremy Rubenstein (right), rehearse an anti-bullying play in Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City. (Elah Feder/NY City Lens)

There are no more than a dozen people scattered across Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens, on this warm Friday afternoon. Visitors push strollers and walk dogs, while a handful of artists work on upcoming installations, but aside from occasional sawing and the hum of motors, it’s dead quiet. Still, no one seems to take notice when Kyle Masteller begins to hop, jog, and flail on a small stage at the park’s south end.

Masteller is rehearsing the role of Tom for an anti-bullying play, which he’ll be performing in middle schools around New York. Box Out Bullying is a two-man show, co-starring Jeremy Rubenstein, who is also the play’s writer and director.  Rubenstein is seated on a floral-print kitchen chair that serves as a makeshift director’s chair, and as Masteller performs, he cuts in from time to time with feedback. Masteller, who is new to the production, nods in vigorous assent.

With his wide, generous smile and athletic physique, it’s hard to imagine Masteller has had much first-hand experience with bullying. But when the performance begins, the possibility that he’s had a rough childhood seems a bit more plausible.

Delivering each of his lines with the precision and energy of a Broadway actor, Masteller lets bullied kids know they’re not alone. Every day, more than 160,000 kids across the country skip school because they’re afraid, he says. Luckily, there’s a magic anti-bullying trunk at center-stage. Seeking guidance, Masteller places his hand on the trunk and tries to telepathically communicate with it. Soon, he’s contorting and convulsing as if he’s being electrocuted—but to no avail. The trunk isn’t ready to reveal its secrets.

A bit later, Rubenstein climbs onstage, to play Tom’s cousin Jerry. With help from the audience (played by Sam, the assistant director), the magic trunk, and a dash of time travel, Tom and Jerry quickly learn the importance of empathy, and of telling an adult when someone is bullied. Some kids might not like telling on their classmates, but Tom and Jerry tell them it’s okay. Being a tattletale (someone who tells just to get someone in trouble), they explain, is entirely different from being a teller (someone who tells in order to protect someone). If this is snitching, it’s the good kind.

Without a live audience participation, the rehearsal wraps up in under 40 minutes, which they agree is excellent pacing. Sam claps and offers a perfunctory “Yaaaay.”

“That’s the best I’ve felt about it so far!” says Rubenstein. They take ten and start again.