The Story of the ACT IV Café Experimental Theatre
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Bentley at the Provincetown Theater in 2015.
Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin
On one particular day in May of 1966, Beverly Bentley prepared her waterfront home at 565 Commercial Street for company. She had an idea. She wanted to form a new theater company in Provincetown, one that would give talented playwrights a chance to present their work, something that was very hard to do in competitive New York City. Two years prior, while walking down the street in Greenwich Village with her husband Norman Mailer, Bentley had bumped into Joe Chaikin, an old friend with whom she had studied theater under Nora Chilton. He was starting his own theater company and wanted her to be a part of it. The very pregnant Bentley pointed to her stomach and declined. Now, with her second child a little more than a month old, Bentley was ready.
As an actor, Bentley’s first love was the theater. She moved to New York from Florida after having met entertainer and broadcaster Arthur Godfrey while she was working in a diner in Pensacola. He gave her bit parts on his television shows, which led to work as a model on game shows like The Price is Right and Beat the Clock. Soon she was on stage in The Big Knife opposite James Earl Jones, and come 1957, she’d made her Broadway debut in Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet. Her prowess as an actor and the contacts she had through her husband attracted theater producer Bob Costa, along with producer Eric Krebs and designer Douglas Ross, who arrived that spring day to create ACT IV Café Experimental Theatre. The theatrical quartet assembled around Bentley’s long pink table in the dining room that overlooked Provincetown Harbor and at low tide provided a view of the pilings left from Lewis Wharf, where in 1915 the Provincetown Players performed before it was destroyed in a storm in the 1920s. Each kicked in $500.
“ACT IV was born that day at my dining room table, and it was not just walking, it was running,” said the late Bentley in a 2003 oral history she did with her family. “Provincetown had a new theater and it burst forth with all the energy of the Sixties.”
That it did. ACT IV began its inaugural season in late June in the basement of the Gifford House with a production of Sharon Thie’s play Soon Jack November, which came to Provincetown after a run at the East Village’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York, whose avant-garde coffeehouse culture ACT IV was emulating. But ACT IV became a theatrical epicenter with their second presentation of Dutchman by LeRoi Jones, who very shortly thereafter changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Starring Bentley and Charles Gordone (who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play No Place to Be Somebody), Dutchman was an explosive and erotic exploration of race relations right at the time Baraka was exploring Black Nationalism. The production received rave reviews attracting attention from the New York theater scene to what was going on in Provincetown. ACT IV was an absolute sensation packing the house each night during those counterculture revolutionary times.
“ACT IV was a magnet,” said Bentley. “It was an exciting, fruitful time and it changed my life because it was a way to make everything work for all of us. My children happy living by the sea, my husband able to write in Provincetown, as he had always done in the past, and for me, a chance to do good and exciting new work.”
It was a hectic, yet good time. Bentley would nurse her young son Stephen in the dressing room during rehearsals and intermissions while also checking in on her other son Michael. “The thing that really comes to mind is how she really treasured the experience,” says Stephen Mailer from his home in Sierra Madre, California. “It was a very happy time for her.”
Bentley and her colleagues had an eye for talent on the edge. Over the four years ACT IV was in existence the theater company brought in extraordinarily talented playwrights as well as a cadre of unknown actors who would very quickly go on to enormous fame, including Jill Clayburgh, Rip Torn, Sally Kirkland, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, John Cazale, and Al Pacino.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of ACT IV is their 1967 production of Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx, pairing friends Cazale and Pacino in their first of many projects, which later included films The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Dog Day Afternoon. While the play premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, with the same cast the year prior, it’s the Provincetown run that propelled it to off-Broadway, where it was a smash hit. And that summer proved to be fortuitous for Pacino, who credits the experience as a big break as that’s when he met Marty Bregman, who would go on to produce films like Scarface and Serpico. It was also a great time in his young life living in a house full of actors in Provincetown and by chance reuniting with his close friend Cazale.
“I hadn’t seen him in years, three or four or five years, and I went up to Provincetown to do this thing called The Indian Wants the Bronx, Israel Horovitz wrote, and that was the first really big thing I [did], so I knew this was a role that and, you know I was doing children’s theater and the director of the children’s theater sent me the script and I thought he wanted me for another part, but he wanted me for the part that I eventually played and we went to Provincetown and there was this big house we were all going to live in it in little rooms, attics,” said Pacino in a 2019 interview with GQ for their Iconic Characters web series. “I forget the name of the director who was there, he says, ‘Oh yeah, we got the guy who’s going to play the Indian.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, you know, ‘who?’ And he opens the door to his room. I was living at the big house and it was John!”
Come 1969, ACT IV had to move out of the Gifford House due to financial constraints, complaints from neighbors about the crowds, the property owners’ disapproval of the subject matter of the plays, and a combative Norman Mailer who began to fight with most everyone, including his wife Beverly, of whom he had grown jealous. Stephen recalls that while the couple did not divorce until 1980, it was in 1969 that the marriage really ended. ACT IV wrapped up its last season at the hot spot Weathering Heights, located where the laundromat is now on Shank Painter Road. It was a crash landing for Bentley.
“He had never seen me in action before, and he complimented my work and was proud, but at the same time he was resentful and wanted to smash me,” said Bentley. “My talent was something he couldn’t control, but he certainly tried. I’d say, ‘I don’t tell you how to write and you can’t tell me how to act!’ And he’d quote Artie Shaw’s famous line to Ava Gardner, ‘Isn’t it enough you’re beautiful, why do you have to open your mouth?’ I was in an emotional whirlpool and my work was going out to sea.”
For extended periods of her life Bentley was a year-round resident of Provincetown, often appearing in local productions and participating in civic life. Her last major public appearance was at a 2015 screening of the long thought lost film Scent of Mystery, a 1960 film she starred in that used the gimmick of handing our scratch and sniff cards to the audience to be used at certain moments, long before John Waters did the same with Polyester. Bentley’s health began to decline and she died in Provincetown on September 13, 2018 at the age of 88.
“She’d been injured and went to live at Seashore Point and once there, it was clear it was best for her to stay as she had dementia,” says Stephen Mailer. “We were glad she could spend the end of her life in Provincetown. I was able to go see her once a month and it was a special time and I’m happy it was in Provincetown.”