By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Feb 04, 2015 at 9:16 AM

For the young theater company Splinter Group and its artistic director Jim Farrell, a key part of the mission statement is finding new works and plays to bring to Milwaukee theater audiences.

"I’m trying to do at least one (world premiere) a year," Farrell said. "It’s tough for writers. It becomes this hamster wheel of play development, where you’re just the writer. People are giving you all of this input, and you’re chasing this carrot of getting a full production. It just seems out of reach all the time. If I read something and I like it, even if it’s never been done anywhere before, I just want to do it."

Last season, Farrell’s own comedy "Trailer Park Prophecies" serves as the Splinter Group’s first world premiere. Now, Farrell and company are getting ready for their second debut production, "3 For The Road," a trio of separate but thematically connected stories about isolation, abandonment and man’s desire to find himself.

"Have you ever on an October night, when people talk about Halloween weather – you go outside, and it feels like there’s restless spirits out or something, something about the way the moon is shining or the way the leaves are scuttling across the pavement – this play comes from that kind of place," said Farrell, who’s directing the production. "There’s something about it that’s unsettling, and the people who are in it are at a point in their lives where they just left. They took off."

The three stories – opening Friday, Feb. 6 and running every weekend until Feb. 22 at Splinter’s Marian Center home, located at 3211 S. Lake Dr. – follow characters at separate points on their path. In one, a man is about to leave down the road. In another, a man is returning home after time on the road. Meanwhile, the middle portion shows two men crossing paths, coming and going, like two ships in the night.

"It’s about people floating outside of their lives and feeling uncomfortable," Farrell said. "Some people just can’t handle normalcy; it stresses them out. So they feel like they have to split, and I think that’s what’s going on with these guys."

It’s an intriguing new show that, for Farrell, arrives via a familiar old face: New York based playwright Tony DiMurro.

The two friends met all the way back in the mid-’80s, when the two – "I don’t know if we were young, fearless, stupid or a combination of all of those things," Farrell joked – were living in New York City trying to make it as actors. After some failed audiences, Farrell and a friend decided to make their own luck, creating a kind of theater collective called the Zemmel Group and auditioning and putting on original shows they wrote. One of the people who auditioned and joined the company was DiMurro, also an aspiring actor at the time. The two quickly became friends, working on and performing plays in NYC’s shady East Village.

"Back in those days, it was like a crazy dangerous, punk rocker, serial killer, crazy-ass neighborhood, and we were doing these crazy-ass plays in the middle of that neighborhood," Farrell joked.

"It was legitimately and honestly scary to walk on the lower east side of Manhattan," DiMurro recalled. "Not only weren’t you a millionaire to live on the lower east side of Manhattan, you probably should have had your head examined to walk or live there."

Their plays were often as dark and crazy as the neighborhood around them. Farrell remembered one called "Runaway" about some guys who go up with their dad to a hunting cabin only to find a seemingly mute homeless girl squatting there, starting a web of horribly dark plot turns involving rape and murder. It was certainly a grim story, but the group’s works soon started catching the eye of the theater community. Gradually, they starting making their way uptown, doing shows off Broadway contracts in established theaters and even getting written up by the New York Times.

"We just didn’t really know any better," Farrell said. "I’m from Long Island, and Tony was from New Jersey. It sounds impressive that it was in New York, but that’s just where we lived. For us, it wasn’t like we were going to go somewhere else to do it."

After about two or three years and a half a dozen plays together, Farrell and DiMurro started to go down different paths. Farrell began doing more acting, establishing a respectable resume of roles, while DiMurro switched from acting to writing, finding success with a couple of plays.

Over the decades, the two kept tabs on each other and show each other’s shows when they could until a couple of years ago, when Jim put together Splinter Group and began the search for some new, fresh material.

"He emailed me and said, ‘Look, I’ve started this theater, and I think we’re doing some cool work,’ and he was," DiMurro said. "He was doing these really interesting plays, like ‘Dog Sees God’ and ‘Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.’ And he said, ‘Are you working on anything?’ And I said, ‘I just finished this play. It’s very quiet and risky.’"

The play, of course, ended up being "3 For The Road," which DiMurro had been working for a while with the help of Naked Angels, a nonprofit theater company based on helping writers, actors and producers collaborate and create new works for the stage. Each of the play’s three stories started as short one-acts that DiMurro was rather fond of, and as they came together, he started to see shared themes and ideas between the three that could be melded and united together into a single show.

"I was so happy with what I had written, I kind of wanted to leave it as it was," DiMurro noted. "Keep each piece as a moment in time and not concern myself with what happened before or afterwards. They're snapshots in time."

After some great feedback and some staged readings, however, the play struggled to get much more momentum. That is, until Jim called, asking about new material. Tony sent over the script, and Jim loved it.

"It reminds me of this author named William Kennedy who wrote 'The Albany Cycle,' which is this series of three novels," Farrell said. "It's very New York-centric piece, but it's also very universal, and there's just something haunting about it."

"He got it immediately," DiMurro said. "I couldn’t be more grateful because I could tell by the work he did the first year that he had a really keen, deciding eye for work that had kind of fallen through the cracks or flown under the radar."

At the time of our interviews, Tony had yet to see Jim’s staged product, but he’s coming to Milwaukee soon to see how the show is coming together and to see what new ideas the collaboration between old friends can bring to light.

"I’ll learn more when I see the production," DiMurro said. "I can only write down the images and voices playing out in my head and learn more about it about by hearing and seeing what people reflect back at me. Theater is a team sport."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.