A conversation with playwright Richard Greenberg, whose
Three Days of Rain is at Manhattan Theatre Club
I don't think I've ever said I'd give the shirt off my back to a first-class playwright, but I think I would‹so I was pleased to hear in my interview with Richard Greenberg that I actually had.
"The very first time I was ever interviewed professionally and had a photograph taken, I was wearing your sweater," he tells me. "I was commuting from New Haven and didn't have any clothes here, and it was still in the apartment." (Exiting from a marriage, I'd left the sweater behind, and my ex‹who directed Greenberg's first play in New York‹lent it to him for the newspaper photo.)
The results must have been persuasively spiffy because Greenberg is one of the bright young playwrights at work today‹although he's not feeling young at the moment: "We had a reading of Three Days of Rain with the people at Manhattan Theatre Club, including some young interns, and one of them came up to me at the end‹and this is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, except for the subtext of it‹and told me it was an honor to meet me. Immediately, I read that as: 'You are infinitely old.' I know it has a nice component, but basically it unavoidably says, 'Old, old, old.' "
No, no, no, but on this particular day Greenberg is feeling every one of his years because he has three plays in the air at present, twirling them like plates on sticks, and that is age-making. In addition to Three Days of Rain now at MTC, he has Safe As Houses going up at the McCarter in New Brunswick under the direction of Emily Mann, and a play he wrote in January, Hurrah, at Last, has won a slot on South Coast Rep's upcoming season.
"Every now and then, there'll be a call from the McCarter, and I will inwardly scream, 'No, wait, I can't think about you now.' And that's a play I really have to address. Right now, it's three hours of text. What happens is that I sometimes forget that I'm working on things. It's a little psychological trick my mind plays on me to enable me to go on. For instance, I haven't even mentioned that I am also working on a musical‹an adaptation [with songwriter William Finn and director Jerry Zaks] of The Royal Family."
But for now, Greenberg's primary concern is his Three Days of Rain which director Evan Yionoulis is pouring on MTC's Stage I, with John Slattery and Patricia Clarkson as brother and sister and Bradley Whitford as their friend. The three meet in the apartment/studio of Slattery and Clarkson's father, where he‹along with Whitford's father‹founded an architectural empire. The year is 1995. Act II flashbacks 35 years to the start of the operation, with the same actors playing their own parents. The gist of the piece is a generational mystery. "The play makes you assemble it. It lays out two sets of information, and you have to put them together. The first act is the present dreaming the past, and the second act is the past dreaming the future. The play is really about the gulf between those two ideas. It's a play about ambiguity, built on irony. The subject is how little we can know, how much we can know, how much we need to know. The way it works is the audience finds out more than anyone onstage will ever know."
Originally, there was a seventh character who was the same person in both acts‹an Italian woman who owned most of the neighborhood‹but she was laid to rest on the trek east from the play's premiere at South Coast Rep. "It was shockingly clean surgery," beams the surgeon. "The character wasn't necessary, but I didn't realize it till I took her out. I carried her along without knowing how she'd function but coming up with clever justifications that seemed real to me. Whenever you take something out, you do lose something, but it's the proportion of loss to gain, and it turned out much more was gained in clarity and focus."
Greenberg can fiddle like this because of his solid rapport with South Coast Rep. This is the third play he has developed and premiered there, and he looks on it as a kind of out-of-town tryout with trainer wheels: "Because the theatre is larger, the technology more up-to-date and the budgets bigger, you get the biggest production you'll have. Sometimes you go out with the play in the crudest form it'll be in, and you get the most refined-looking production. It's an odd sort of thing. You get all sorts of values lavished on it, and there's still a gaping hole in Act II."
Where this has got out-of-town tryouts beat "is that it's not continuous. There's a nice gap. I've always had several months between out-of-town and New York, and you can really think it out."
Greenberg was still in Yale Drama School when he found the backdoor to showbiz and entered cautiously, applying to be literary manager for New York's prestigious Ensemble Studio Theatre's summer conference and supporting that application with a sample of his writing. "I didn't get the job‹thank God! I'd have been terrible at it‹but they read the sample and wanted to do a reading. That's how I got hooked up with EST."
The association was sealed in the fall of 1984 when his first full-length play, The Bloodletters, was staged by Shirley Kaplan. After that, and for several years, Greenberg contributed to the company's excellent One-Act Marathons‹most memorably, The Author's Voice with Kevin Bacon, David Hyde Pierce and Rain's Patricia Clarkson and Life Under Water with Andrew McCarthy (which was later lensed for PBS with Keanu Reeves).
His next major step was to MTC, which, to date, has introduced six Greenberg plays to N.Y.C. One of these, Eastern Standard, was transferred to Broadway on the wings of a Frank Rich rave. There were dissenters, and the author became a mangled man in the middle. "People paid so much attention to it, and the attention was very divided. I thought I had wanted that my whole life, but then it came and it was horrible. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone. I just wanted my plays to fold nicely into the season. I wanted them to go well, and basically that's what has happened.
"I want to be a playwright the way people are bank tellers. I want to keep doing it and have it go steadily and smoothly. That became an ethos. I thought, 'This is better. This is what I can handle, where there's not too much fuss. It's better this way.' "
So there he goes‹Richard Greenberg, the inconspicuous hit-maker, going about his appointed rounds, creating fascinating plays while laboring to keep all the accompanying fuss at room temperature.