Art Isn't Easy: David Hirson Scales Broadway Again with Wrong Mountain

Art Isn't Easy: David Hirson Scales Broadway Again with Wrong Mountain What is a good life? That simple yet complex question is the crux of Wrong Mountain, a funny, thought-provoking, ambitious play written by David Hirson, whose first and only other play, the remarkable La Bete, became a cause celebre during its brief Broadway run in 1991. Wrong Mountain stars Ron Rifkin as angry, acerbic Henry Dennett, an obscure poet goaded by his ex-wife’s new husband, a famous playwright, into writing a play. As Dennett ventures into an art form he regards with contempt, his carefully constructed persona begins to crumble. He is forced to examine his very essence and confront the possibility that he may have spent his entire life climbing the wrong mountain.
Ron Rifkin and Mary Schmidtberger in Wrong Mountain.
Ron Rifkin and Mary Schmidtberger in Wrong Mountain. (Photo by Photo by Ken Friedman)

What is a good life? That simple yet complex question is the crux of Wrong Mountain, a funny, thought-provoking, ambitious play written by David Hirson, whose first and only other play, the remarkable La Bete, became a cause celebre during its brief Broadway run in 1991. Wrong Mountain stars Ron Rifkin as angry, acerbic Henry Dennett, an obscure poet goaded by his ex-wife’s new husband, a famous playwright, into writing a play. As Dennett ventures into an art form he regards with contempt, his carefully constructed persona begins to crumble. He is forced to examine his very essence and confront the possibility that he may have spent his entire life climbing the wrong mountain.

"It’s a story of human folly and self-delusion and longing," says Hirson. "On the surface Dennett is an entirely loathsome character, but the degree of his misanthropy suggests the degree to which life has wounded him. One of the things that makes him human, and not just some horrible monster, is that he’s been deeply wounded. And he responds in a way that makes him almost magnificent in his suffering and failure."

Hirson’s second play, which reunites him with La Bete director Richard Jones (Titanic), is once again uncommon Broadway fare: a seriocomic new work by an American playwright that challenges the audience with issues and ideas -- and with the music and wit of its language. Although there are many hilarious moments in Wrong Mountain, some cerebral and some downright silly, Hirson grapples with big themes and refuses to serve up pat answers. "What if a man achieves the greatest triumph of his life for something that he viewed with absolute contempt?" asks Dennett. Is it better to live according to your image of yourself, or embrace the person you really are? Like La Bete, Wrong Mountain wrestles with the dilemma of art versus entertainment, whether an artist can be commercially successful and maintain his integrity. "I wouldn’t have written the play if I knew the answers to these questions," says Hirson. "I hope that by the end of the play, people see how complicated it is to arrive at answers."

Hirson also serves up an array of characters far more complex than they might initially appear. Maurice Montesor (Daniel Davis), the director of the festival staging Dennett’s play, calls himself a buffoon and spends most of the evening cheerfully living up to that description. But in the end, the audience’s perception of him -- and other characters -- changes. "Somebody commented to me, `All these characters are fighting desperately for approval or love or affection,'" says Hirson. "Maurice is the one character who has accepted that life is inevitably a failure in some way, and is, therefore, freed from the treadmill of human folly. On some level, we recognize that he’s the most successful character in the play. By saying, `I’m a buffoon,' he’s showing a self-consciousness of buffoonery, which means he’s probably the only character in the play who isn’t a buffoon."

It has been a long time between plays for Hirson, who struggled after La Bete to find another idea that sparked his imagination. "La Bete was written strictly from a place of passion," he says. "A lot of people entered my life with that play, and when I began to think about writing another play, I was hoping that it would appeal to those same people. As soon as you get that notion in your head, you’re lost, because you can never know what will appeal to people. So it was quite a crippling thought. It took me a great deal of time to get back to a place of real passion. I spent a year or two just jotting down ideas on backs of envelopes and matchbooks, phrases and notions of character. And then they began to take shape." There is much debate in Wrong Mountain about the purpose and significance of theatre, and the discussion seems to be, in part, Hirson’s attempt at coming to terms with La Bete and the controversy it provoked. "I suppose it could be true insofar as the turmoil surrounding La Bete is part of my experience,” he says. “But I don’t view this play as being a play about the theatre. I view it as a play that’s about all those other issues, like, `What is a good life?'"

La Bete, by contrast, is solely about theatre. Loosely based on The Misanthrope and inspired by the life of Moliere, La Bete cleverly explores the perpetual war between high art and low art without taking sides, and is written entirely in rhymed couplets. Audiences who had the opportunity to see the original production of the play found it to be one of the most thrilling, exuberant and original new American works to grace Broadway in many a year.

Although reviews were mixed, many were euphoric, and the day after the show opened, Hirson received calls from three Hollywood studios anxious to obtain the film rights. (The play was later produced in London, where it won the 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year.) But a particularly scathing review in The New York Times doomed the play to a run of 24 performances (and 15 previews). Members of the theatre community were so incensed that 28 luminaries, including Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins, Katharine Hepburn, Kevin Kline and David Henry Hwang, wrote a letter of protest to the paper. (The letter was printed not in the Times, but in the now defunct TheaterWeek.)

"I felt very privileged that those 28 astonishing people got together and wrote a letter," says Hirson. "To see the kind of passion the play provoked, to have people take extraordinary measures to express their feelings offset the sadness I had about the play having a short life. Even today, people still come up to me and say, `I had very strong feelings about that play.' It’s very moving for me to hear that. If there hadn’t been that kind of response to La Bete, there wouldn’t have been such intense interest in Wrong Mountain. So the experience has cast a very long shadow. I can only feel grateful for what that play has been in my life.”

--Sheryl Flatow