I went to bed early Wednesday night. Before I went downstairs this morning, I picked up my phone to check email and saw a fresh message from playwright Bill Doncaster. “A little overwhelmed by the karma,” he wrote. “When I started this, would never have predicted Higgins' work would be back on the rise, the Bruins would win the cup again, and Whitey would get pinched. A little surreal.”
Wait, what? I read it again to make sure he wasn’t joking, then ran to turn on the TV. Sure enough, a couple of days after the start of a new FBI ad campaign, they’d finally caught Whitey Bulger.
Doncaster wrote a stage adaptation of George V. Higgins’ classic 1972 Boston crime novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which limns the same Irish-and-Italian mob scene where James “Whitey” Bulger ruled before he went on the run 16 years ago.
“I was more shocked than when they got Bin Laden,” Doncaster said by phone later in the day. “I heard his name and thought, they’re not still reporting on that ad campaign are they? And then I heard the word arrest.”
Doncaster’s play was cheered in a staged reading at the Burren in Davis Square last November, with Higgins’ widow in the audience. And he recently announced that a full production of the play will begin performances Dec. 8-Jan. 15 at the ART’s Oberon venue on the edge of Harvard Square. (Doncaster notes that while Bulger was a Southie phenomenon, the fictional Coyle came from Cambridge's Central Square.)
The play is just one sign of a Higgins resurgence, the biggest being that Brad Pitt spent part of the last few months filming an adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade” in (alas) New Orleans. Doncaster is putting together a non-profit to finance his production and will start raising money sometime next month. You can go to www.thefriendsofeddiecoyle.com and sign up for email updates.
Doncaster and I had already joked recently about the timing of the Bruins championship. One of the best remembered moments in Peter Yates’ acclaimed “Coyle” movie is when Robert Mitchum, as the drunken hood Coyle, cheers on “Number four! Bobby Orr!” The last Bruins’ Stanley Cup triumph was in… 1972. But the Whitey capture takes karma to a new level.
One of the key characters in “Coyle” is Dillon, a felon who is the silent owner of a bar (like Bulger and Triple O’s), a government informant playing both sides of the street (like Bulger) and, it turns out, a killer (like Bulger). Doncaster said that Higgins, although he’d been a federal prosecutor, always maintained that Dillon was an invention and not based on Bulger.
"I get asked about that pretty frequently,” Doncaster said. “With the similarities…it’s easy to jump to that conclusion.”
In Doncaster’s production, Rick Park plays Dillon. I’d recently asked Doncaster to put me in touch with Park on an unrelated matter, and when he emailed me this morning, his original intent was just to make sure I’d heard from Park.
“Very, very strange,” Doncaster said with a laugh.
Not as spooky as the real thing, though. Doncaster met Bulger “for two seconds” back in the 80s. “My girlfriend at the time lived in the neighborhood. Scary guy, even in a brief meeting.”
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