It was August of 2004, Richard Greenberg says. The Republican National Convention was coming to New York City. He was renovating an apartment in Chelsea that he has since moved into. He had just read W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, about the intensive bombing of Hamburg and other German cities in World War II, and all the memories of destruction that people had suppressed as a way of trying to cope with the devastation.
And, says Greenberg— the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 2003 for Take Me Out—“the light in August was its usual unforgiving self.”
As a result, he says, “I was filled with every kind of anxiety, all kinds of contradictions, in creating a space I was hoping to live in forever while at the same time the world was seeming as if it would come to an end at any minute.” He found that the only thing he could do was write.
What came out of all that apprehension is a play called The Well Appointed Room, and it is currently having its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, directed by Terry Kinney and starring Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Josh Charles and Kate Arrington. “This is the play that is saturated with that anxiety—that reflects rather than tries to temper my mood,” Greenberg says. It’s actually two one-act plays, both of which take place in the early years of the twenty-first century and both of which are set in an apartment very much like the one he was renovating.
“The first one spans 45 minutes in a morning, probably in 2002. The second goes from 2000 to maybe 2005—it’s not all that specific. The first is about something that happens between a playwright and his wife. All I’ll say about the second is that it’s about a young married couple who are going to have a baby —that’s absolutely true, and it’s as misleading as it could possibly be.”
This is a busy season for Greenberg. Another new play, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, was presented in the fall by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. His new play Bal Masque is scheduled for April at Theatre J in Washington, D.C. Another new play, The House in Town, is due at Lincoln Center Theater in May. And, a revival of his Three Days of Rain is planned for Broadway in March—starring Julia Roberts.
But, Greenberg says, he doesn’t look at the season as anything special. Long ago, he says, he “decided to stop reading reviews. And then I decided to stop reading anything about myself. I’ve trained everyone in my life to become absolutely virtuous at not saying anything. The effect has been to normalize my work. That’s why I’m doing so much work now—because those things that get in the way of other people don’t get in my way.”
He finds it useful, he says, “to think of working in the theatre as a job. I know it isn’t a normal job, but the more I can make it that way, the better off I am. So this year, it just feels like I’m doing a lot of work. And, after all, most people work at least 40 hours a week— so what’s the big deal?”