The Greenberg Juggernaut: this is the season when everyone wants a piece of Richard the Prolific.
After all, no matter how the playwright spins it, the numbers don't lie: Greenberg has no fewer than five major productions at high-visibility venues this theatre season. Four of them are brand-new plays, and the fifth is a much-anticipated revival that will introduce Julia Roberts to the Broadway stage. Call this Greenberg's uberseason.
It began this past April with the premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, which was subsequently mounted on Broadway in October under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company. In New York, Doug Hughes--whose busy schedule also included helming Doubt, for which he won a Tony--directed the over-the-top comedy about a wealthy couple (played by Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas) whose three children surprise them with all sorts of shocking disclosures.
"I had admired him from afar for many years," says Hughes of the playwright, with whom he was working for the first time. The collaboration reminded him, Hughes says, of a memorable remark Holden Caulfield made in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "'What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.' That's exactly how I feel about Richard. He's that great to work with."
Fortunately for Hughes, Naked Girl--which earned mixed-to-hostile notices--is just part one of Hughes's season with Greenberg. He's set to direct the premiere of Greenberg's The House in Town at Lincoln Center Theater in May Hughes is hardly deterred by Naked Girl's less-than-delirious reception: "There is a place for frivolity in the theatre--and this play was deeply rooted in honest human anxiety," he believes. "Really great writers can occasionally do something beautiful and frothy with their left hand. Naked Girl was something that's fun to see. And I'm a great believer in having fun."
"Fun" is one of the words Terry Kinney uses to describe his experience directing Greenberg's second premiere of the season, The Well-Appointed Room, which opened in January at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and runs through March 12. The playwright himself tapped Kinney for Room, which features two sets of couples and their (possibly) interconnected stories, after seeing his production of The Violet Hour at Steppenwolf in 2003. Greenberg says he had Kinney in mind to direct when he wrote Room--to which Kinney rejoins, "Lucky me."
Kinney insists that since Greenberg eschews "big themes and grand concepts," it's his job as director "to dig out the universality of this play." What Room is about, the director says, is "how difficult it can be to stay in the present, given all the things out there working against you." He quotes Greenberg's own phrase "the excruciation of the present" to explain: "We're being told every day to prepare ourselves for the possibility our lives could end very violently and suddenly. Given that fact, why should we invest ourselves in nesting, in our ambitions, in planning for the future for ourselves or for our children? But there's every good reason to--and that's what Rich is ultimately saying."
Just as Room closes, the Broadway revival of one of Greenberg's most acclaimed plays, Three Days of Rain, begins previews, on March 28. Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper will share the stage with mega-star Julia Roberts. "She was just wonderful in the reading we had in Los Angeles," says the usually press-shy playwright, who's thrilled that Roberts's star power will deflect some of the attention away from himself.
Three Days of Rain, which debuted at South Coast Rep in 1997 and had another production later that year at Manhattan Theatre Club, began something of a thematic refrain for Greenberg: playing with time. The first act introduces a brother and sister and childhood friend who have come together for the reading of the siblings' father's will. The fraught reunion gives way to an attempt to piece together their respective parents' mysterious relationship. The second act sets the same trio of actors a generation before, playing the parents and revealing for the audience the truths their children could only conjecture.
Once Rain is up and running, Greenberg travels south to Washington, D.C.'s Theater J for Bal Masque, which runs April 5-May 21. Using Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966 as its backdrop, the play captures three couples' experiences in the early hours just following the event.
"We were shocked to receive the script in the mail from Rich's agent saying that this new play was available for a world premiere," notes Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth. "We thought that it was a typo or a mistake that we received it, or maybe that it had been shopped around because it was so off-projectile from his other works, which is why it was trickling down to a theatre of our size." None of that proved true.
In fact, Theater J, one of the nation's most lauded contemporary Jewish theatres, is a perfect home for a new Greenberg piece. "We learned from his agent that Rich was looking for different methods of launching new work," says Roth, who is also an award-winning playwright. "With four premieres in the same year, Rich was starting to feel fatigue from the same pool, the same network. Working with us was a way to do something developmentally a little different."
Roth asked John Vreeke, one of Theater J's resident directors, to take on Masque. "It was like reading a well-put-together piece of music," says Vreeke. "Rich has created three distinct styles of writing for each act with each part standing on its own, and yet all three parts are connected--by character, by setting and by environment--to make one complete world."
The Greenberg season of premieres wraps up in May with Lincoln Center's The House in Town, in which the writer explores the relationship between a wealthy man and his wife during the first months of 1929, just preceding the country's first major stock market crash. "It's an astonishingly different work from Naked Girl" says director Hughes. "There's a mystery and stillness and haunting power to it. It couldn't operate in more different ways than the other plays he's doing this season.
"We all face invariable problems and anxieties when doing a show, and to do so with someone who is not only an extraordinary writer, but also a great strategist about his work, is incredible," Hughes goes on. "Also, I think he realizes it's a great privilege to do what we do--and that's important to remember, especially when the going gets a little rough."
I spoke with Greenberg twice this winter about that privilege and about his event-packed season.
TERRY HONG: How did you become a playwright?
RICHARD GREENBERG: I became a playwright quite by accident when I was trying to escape from school [Harvard, where Greenberg was working on a graduate degree in English literature]. I was hiding out. I had stopped attending classes, at night I was acting in a play, and I needed something to do during the day without leaving the dorm. I had written fiction before, but never plays. I thought, "Well, I'm in this room, why not write a play?" So I did. I sent it to Yale Drama School, and they took me, so I went.
What play were you acting in?
The Visit [by Friedrich Durrenmatt]. I thought I might want to be an actor. I certainly wasn't ever going to teach English literature. And, of course, I was the star! Puh-lease! (Laughs) It was the first show Bill Rauch ever directed--he was a child then, but now he's a really big deal as the founder of the Cornerstone Theater Company.
The word out there is that you wrote three of these upcoming plays in a month! How did you actually do that?
I hadn't written anything in a year-and-a-half. The Republicans were coming to town [for the Republican National Convention in New York City in August 2004] and there was a heat wave going on. I was saturated with anxiety and the writing provided the only sense of mastery over my anxious condition, so I just kept writing.
I wrote A Naked Girl on the Appian Way to cheer myself up. That's why it's relentlessly jokey and relentlessly thin. I was constantly making jokes to cheer myself up, but that doesn't necessarily make for good theatre, which I realize now. But for three days, I laughed a lot.
You wrote the whole play in three days?
Yes, but I felt I still needed to write, and I had all this energy left. I had a play that I had been thinking about for three years. I knew how The House in Town would go, so I decided, "What the heck, I'll just write it." I had all the linkages--how it all fit together. I already had the structure, the style, the motion of it all figured out.
It takes place in the first months of 1929. It's about a marriage and a house. I used to live in London Terrace. My late agent Helen Merrill once told me that London Terrace opened on the day the stock market crashed. The large houses across the street were called Millionaires' Row, where the wealthy merchants lived, and London Terrace is where these merchants stashed their mistresses. When I lived there, I remember seeing wraith-like women skulking around during the day. They were like specters from the past. They're what inspired parts of The House in Town.
And after A Naked Girl and House in Town, you still had another play in you.
Then came The Weil-Appointed Room. It started as three one-acts, but one of them was jettisoned, so it's down to two one-acts now. It has to do with nostalgia and prolepsis. Prolepsis is the condition of treating a future event as if it's already happened. It's another time play, in a curious way. It takes place in the last five years.
I've been having an incredibly good time--the best time I've had in rehearsals in a long time. I just love Terry Kinney and the company. The Steppenwolf team came here [to New York] for rehearsals--they're almost an ancient culture, so they have stories that go way, way back. They're all a bunch of great actors, so the stories arc told just right, and they're so funny--their imitations are so precise. The rehearsals ease in and out of various conversations, and that's just wonderful.
I remember rehearsals for Take Me Out--there were some days that I didn't even know if we had rehearsed because the day was so freewheeling, filled with so much gossip and banter. That was the rehearsal process, and the flow of conversation made it that much freer. That's what this feels like.
Bal Masque is the one new play this season that you did not write during your writing binge, but you wrote it in the same year. What's the story behind that play? Why Truman Capote? Why 1966?
That was the time when I was a little kid and my sensibility was just forming. Those years when I was first figuring out the world was a powerful time, so I have a tendency to return to them in my plays. What interested me about the phenomenon of Capote's masked ball is the idea of power. Who really has the power? Those who were not allowed in to the event were, in essence, being cast out into exile.
Truman Capote was synonymous with "freak" back then. He was a freak as a cultural entity, but he also was treasured for that, although in a very particular way of being treasured. That time was a moment of cultural transition, and I always like writing about things in flux. The power sources were shifting. It was a phenomenon--the people who had been outcasts were becoming the arbiters of power.
Terry Kinney says you eschew themes in your plays. Might this be true?
Oh, bless him! He's so right! It's true, I don't like talking in themes. Besides, isn't that what you wrote in junior high school? A theme on this, a theme on that? It's a useless thing to approach a play as if you're illustrating a theme. It's stupid, it's deadening. It's really hard for a playwright to tell you about his play. The truth is, if I could say it in brief, I wouldn't have had to write the play. And if I tell you about it, then I'll have to be thinking about all the pages of the play that I didn't tell you about.
Do you go to the theatre as part of the audience very often?
What do you look for when you choose a play to see?
For a long time, I was seeing very little--too little, in fact. In the last couple of weeks, I saw five or six plays. And I went to see The Light in the Piazza seven times. It's a gorgeously wrought thing, something that I get a craving for--so I keep going, what the heck!
Did life change after you won the Tony in 2003 for Take Me Out?
I had never before taken anti-anxiety medications, but after I won the Tony I had to walk on stages and talk in public a lot. So I got myself a prescription for alprazolam [also known as Xanax].
About six months after I won the Tony, I was lying around and suddenly realized, "Wow! I won a Tony!" It hadn't sunk in until then. The odd thing is, I've been showing up a lot on Broadway over the years. I never anticipated that. I always thought of myself as an Off-Broadway sort of writer. Actually, I'm looking forward to returning there.
What changes is that I don't feel like I have to win the Tony anymore. It's like this: Don't feel bad if you don't get one, but don't feel bad if you do. Enjoy it, it's festive. Besides, you get to go to really nice parties, and you're part of a big deal. Once you've won, you don't have to win again, which means you can go off and do other things.
Another thing that changes is that people who previously had no idea what you were doing finally get it. People have heard of the Tony Awards--there's definitely name recognition. Nurses in your oncologist's office finally get it and they stop worrying about you being in the theatre. Even some of your relatives, all those nice people around you who didn't ever really understand what exactly it was that you did, finally get it.
As prolific as you are, what do you do when you're not writing?
All I ever do is write. Even when I'm not writing, that's when I do the most writing. I walk around writing and writing. I imagine a play, and I'm rehearsing scenes with myself. By the time I actually get to writing down a play, it's largely secretarial. Sometimes I write on scraps of paper, but mostly I figure that the stuff I need, I'll remember.
I understand your "office" is the Moonstruck Diner on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan.
I used to go there a lot. I love diners--they're the only place to eat. This one is especially great. They have those enormous booths with tall panels so you can stay there for a long time and hide. It's a great place to go. The late great Helen Merrill referred to it as my office.
When you're at your office or other public places, do you ever consciously listen to other people's conversations?
And do such conversations make it into your plays?
Oh, gosh, never. What do you take me for? (Pause)
Well, of course! Sometimes I have to tell my companions to be quiet so I can hear the people in the next booth. Overhearing is a great gift to a writer. If you just sort of dip into other people's lives, as opposed to immerse yourself, you realize quickly that most people are crazy. It's only when you really allow yourself to get absorbed hermeneutically in others' lives, they seem to make sense. So when you hear just scraps, you know people are largely insane.
Does that make you insane, too?
Either I'm the only sane one, or I just make imperfect but good sense to only myself.
Who are some writers you admire?
If I were absolutely forced without any choice to name a favorite writer, I'd say Philip Roth. Not just for the work itself, but because it seems in the latter part of his life, he's turned his life into his writing. During the 1990s, he produced a masterpiece a year for an entire decade. That's an incredibly impressive, extraordinary feat and incredibly desirable, too.
I also love John Guare's work. I know him and I'm awfully fond of him. Strangely enough, I still have trouble calling him "John," and the idea that I can just call him up, all these years later, still seems very weird to me.
What are you working on now?
There's one play for which I have about a hundred pages of scenes. It used to be called My Mother's Affair with David Greenglass. Greenglass was Ethel Rosenberg's brother who ratted on her to save his own hide. But it might turn out to be Our Mothers Affair with David Greenglass--I'm still in the process of establishing point of view. I have other ideas floating around, so Greenglass might not turn out to be my next play. Sometimes a play will just come out and startle me.
Terry Hong is the media arts consultant for the Smithsonian institution's Asian Pacific American Program.
AN INTERVIEW BY TERRY HONG
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|Title Annotation:||Richard Greenberg|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2006|
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