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Novelist Dennis Lehane writes for three dimensions with Coronado

WRITING ON THE WALL Gerry Lehane, left, led his brother Dennis to the wicked stage.

WRITING ON THE WALL Gerry Lehane, left, led his brother Dennis to the wicked stage. Photo: David Epstein

While he's not about to quit his day job as a best-selling novelist, Dennis Lehane has certainly been adding to his profile. Last season he wrote an episode of HBO's series The Wire, and his movie portfolio keeps growing: Fellow Bostonian Ben Affleck just signed on to write and direct a film version of his 1998 novel, Gone, Baby, Gone. Apparently not content with the big and little screens, Lehane is now branching into theater: He has adapted his 2004 short story "Until Gwen" into a play called Coronado, which runs through December 17 at Manhattan Theatre Source. But don't expect Lehane's stage debut to involve star-studded, multimillion-dollar production values like the 2003 film version of Mystic River. Instead, Coronado—a psychodrama about a stolen diamond and a doomed love affair—makes its humble bow in a 55-seat theater with a cast of relative unknowns.

Lehane isn't the first famous writer to choose a small theater for his debut play. Novelists Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo tested the playwriting waters with Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames and Valparaiso, respectively, without going anywhere near the Great White Way.

So why aren't these literary heavyweights parlaying name recognition into big marquees and bigger paychecks? In Lehane's case, the answer is familial. His introduction to Coronado's producer, Invisible City Theater Company, came from his brother, Gerry, who is a member. Last Christmas, Gerry invited members of his troupe up to Boston. It was there that the idea for the play was hatched over beers in a basement rec room. Lehane freely admits to being a naif when it comes to theater. "Coronado came out of this idea like, 'Hey, my dad's got a barn. Let's put on a show,'" the author explains via e-mail from his teaching post at the University of Florida. "This summer, I went down to New York and workshopped the first act with a lot of the actors who ended up in the final cast. I'd go back at night and rewrite existing scenes and then compose completely new scenes for the second act. A few weeks later, we had a play." Lehane found the collaborative process a revitalizing, energetic, creative time: "Weeks like that are why I became a writer," he says.

While Lehane may be enjoying a change of pace from the solitary life of a novelist, the stakes are higher for Invisible City. A script with such a high-profile author is a gift for this struggling Off-Off Broadway troupe. "Our theater company is our life," director David Epstein says. "And collaborating with a writer like Lehane is the kind of crazy luck you only dream of having."

Coronado is playing at Manhattan Theatre Source through December 17.