Tony Leone can still remember the moment he fell in love with theater. After landing a few bit parts in plays as a college student at SUNY Buffalo, he finally earned his first speaking role when he played an old curmudgeon named Mr. Morse in the Lanford Wilson play “Hot l Baltimore.” For his first line, he rumbled into the scene from a backstage staircase to deliver four words — “I have a complaint” — and from that moment on, theater was a major part of his life.
“It was like an explosion,” Leone recalled. “When I said that line, the whole audience erupted in laughter by the way I delivered it. Night after night, I got all these laughs, and so, ever since that moment, it was like something happened in me and I had to do theater. That feeling has never left me.”
A new endeavor
Theater emboldened him to take a risk. Right before Covid hit, Leone quit his job in pharmaceutical logistics in New Hyde Park and devoted his life to a new endeavor: the Strongbox Theater. First, though, he needed a location to house his plays. After looking at several properties, Leone, of Valley Stream, and his wife and business partner, Marla D’Urso, purchased the abandoned former East Rockaway National Bank and Trust Company, which was built in 1930 and has been vacant for five years.
They plan to convert the building into a performing arts venue featuring a black box theater to present plays, open microphone nights, film screenings and concerts. They also bought the building next to the bank to use as an office and rehearsal space while the facility is under construction. In addition to the black box (typically a small square room with black walls and a flat floor), Strongbox will feature dressing rooms on the second floor, a rehearsal space and lighting grids installed in the ceiling, as well as a café and lounge. A big obstacle that Leone and D’Urso face is deciding what to do with the massive bank vault that the couple was told would cost $100,000 to remove. Leone said he hoped to incorporate it into the theater’s design.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. It’s an obsession. I’ve always had this dream where I’d be walking along the avenue and thinking, ‘This could be a good theater.’”
Play in the park
The theater will not likely be finished until September 2022, but Leone isn’t waiting to make his mark on East Rockaway. With the approval of village officials, his company is staging free performances of “39 Steps” in Memorial Park on Fridays and Saturdays from July 9 to 31. The play is based on a spy novel written in 1915 by John Buchan, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into a dramatic movie in 1935 before it was converted into a comedic play in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The play follows main character Richard Hannay as he becomes embroiled in an international spy ring related to the mysterious “39 steps.”
“It feels good to give the gift of theater with a free show,” Leone said. “I think people are itching to see a show, and these actors are itching to have an audience.”
Leone hired Sam Hood Adrain in April to direct the play. Hood Adrain was the first of several candidates whom Leone interviewed and has an extensive background in television and film, runs a production company, and has performed since he was 8.
“It’s just the show that we need in this time,” Hood Adrain said, beaming with excitement. “Coming out of Covid, people are so ready to gather together and be safe. This show is nothing but funny. It’s going to be a joyous coming together.”
The 106-page play has a two-hour run time, and though there are about 60 roles in the performance, four actors play all of them, ranging from old Scottish innkeepers to gang enforcers. The cast rehearses five hours a day, five days a week. There are 20 crewmembers, and Leone said the goal is to have 1,000 people from East Rockaway and surrounding communities see the play this summer. Leone praised Hood Adrain for his energy and rapport with the actors, and his ability to bring challenging scenes to life.
Hood Adrain got a sense of the camaraderie of theater when he was in a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and his sister, Grace, died suddenly. When he returned to auditions two weeks after her death, the play’s cast and crew gave him a book filled with personal messages to lift his spirits.
“One of the kids wrote, ‘You have something that no one else has: You have an angel in the audience the rest of your life,’” he said, fighting back tears.
From then on, he continued acting, writing and directing, eventually moving to Brooklyn and starting his production company — What Will the Neighbors Say — which develops original plays.
Community fixture to be
Leone, D’Urso and Hood Adrain each said they hoped “39 Steps” would bring people together, and they wanted the theater to help surrounding businesses by becoming a community fixture and drawing people to the area.
Most of all, D’Urso said, they want the play to foster a sense of community and normalcy after a trying year and a half. “We need them to make us smile now,” she said of the “39 Steps” cast. “That’s the most important part. We’re dying to smile and laugh and just do something fun.”
As the actors buzzed about during a rehearsal behind him, Leone sat at his desk and tried to envision what it will be like in Memorial Park this summer.
“I picture opening night,” he said softly as the actors ran lines in the background. “Just standing in the back and just hearing that first laugh, just like that first laugh I got playing Mr. Morse all those years ago. As soon as the audience erupts in laughter that first time, I know I’m going to lose it. That, to me, is going to be a big moment in my life.”