An OOB Valentine's Day Story
When asked to write about a couple who met while working in an OOB show together, I immediately thought of my friends, Karen Sternberg and David Ian Lee. We’ve all been close friends for several years now, and I knew the story of their courtship and eventual marriage had some interesting twists and turns – a three-act structure, if you will, for those of you who have read screenwriting manuals.
I first met David when we were both part of the Writers’ Forum at Manhattan Theater Source, but his relationship with Karen precedes that. They met while both of them were working in a production of All’s Well That Ends Well that the Boomerang Theatre Company was mounting in Central Park. Karen was cast as Helena, John Hurley was directing and David was assistant directing. David was immediately taken with Karen – her tall, strawberry blond good looks, her talent, her impish, off-kilter sense of humor. But Karen was dating someone else (“No names!” Karen insisted on our Facetime interview), so David wrote it off, not seeing any possibility of a relationship happening. They lost touch after, but about six months later, David was cast in a one-act evening titled The Blueprint Project, again directed by John Hurley. Karen came to see the show, and they reconnected.
At this point, David was preparing a production of a play he had written, titled Sleeper, that was going up at Manhattan Theater Source on MacDougal Street. Knowing he needed a special talent for the female lead, he asked Karen to read for him and Nat Cassidy, the show’s director. Karen came in, and of course, killed the audition. David and Nat agreed she was the right choice and offered her the part.
And she waited three days to accept.
“I take shows very seriously,” Karen said. “It’s a time commitment, I have to be sure the part is right, the elements are right.”
“I remember you saying you wanted to make us sweat,” David responded.
But accept she did. I remember going to see Sleeper and being very impressed with all elements – writing, direction, and acting. And I remembered having seen Karen previously, in a show I didn’t much care for, but wishing her character had been given more to do, since she was fascinating to watch. Happily, David’s play did not waste her talents as the previous one had, and I remember making a mental note, that both of them were people I wanted to work with in the future.
Sleeper is a tense, effective drama inspired by the Daniel Pearl tragedy, and David and Karen were cast as a couple – the Pearl figure and his wife. But Karen was still seeing someone else.
They became good friends regardless, and would hang out. By this point, David was secretly besotted, but resigned to the idea that nothing was ever going to come of it. And he didn’t want to take a chance of messing up the friendship with Karen that he’d come to value so much. “I knew she was special,” he said. “I didn’t want to sully it. I’d messed up relationships before, and I didn’t want to botch this one.”
“We’d both been in relationships where infidelity had left scars,” Karen added. But one night, during the run of Sleeper, a very close friend of Karen’s came to see the show. Afterward, while waiting to congratulate Karen, the friend saw David come out, greet his friends, and go off for drinks. Years later, she would tell Karen, “The moment I saw him, I knew you were going to marry him and have his child.”
The run of Sleeper ended, and David had an out-of-town gig that lasted two months. They reconnected when David returned to New York.
“I’m single now,” Karen said.
“Want to go out?” responded David.
“We’d exhausted all other options,” is how Karen sums up the story of their courtship.
They’ve been together ever since, and Karen’s friend’s prediction turned out to be right on the money – although the sequence turned out to be slightly different, since they elected to become parents before they finally tied the knot in December of 2012. Beckett Harrison Lee came into the world in April of 2010, and he is a thriving, creative, hilarious little three-and-a half going on four year old. Not surprising, given the lineage.
“Brace yourselves,” Uncle Mame has said, on several occasions. “I think you’re raising an actor.”
“Oh, God, no!” is the usual response. From both of them.
Karen and David departed New York a couple of years ago, so David could pursue his MFA in directing at the well regarded Illinois State University at Normal. Yep, that’s right – Normal, Illinois. They traveled into New York for their wedding, so their longtime friends could be present, and so they could come full circle.
That wedding, you see, took place in Central Park, at the Bethesda Fountain, in the same park where they had met some years earlier. When I heard their plan, I said, “Central Park in December? It’s gonna be cold.”
“It’s gonna be quick,” Karen responded.
Cold it was, but it was also sweet. We were a pretty intimate wedding party, about thirteen people, as I recall, including Nat Cassidy and Kristen Vaughan, who had both been involved in the production of Sleeper – and of course, Beckett. Since the water was drained, the ceremony took place in the fountain itself, with the rest of us sitting on the perimeter. It was indeed quick – fifteen or twenty minutes, with Karen’s longtime friend Jarel Davidow officiating, a few of us doing readings, and music from Nat and Alexis Thomason. Suddenly, in one of those New York moments, strangers in the park started gathering around the fountain to listen to the vows, as if they all sensed the trueness of the occasion, and briefly, our little wedding party swelled from thirteen to something like fifty or sixty. When David and Karen were pronounced husband and wife, applause burst forth from the whole assembly, warming us from the winter chill.
And then we swiftly departed the park to a lovely Italian Restaurant, for some very welcome food and drink. And central heating.
I’ve always been grateful I was a part of that event; I’ve been to more elaborate and expensive weddings in my time, but never more fun than that gathering, however chilly, and never one that rang truer. Act Three was worth the plot twists.