Commissions from regional theatres have been the lifeline of many playwrights, and 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist (for Three Days of Rain) Richard Greenberg praises the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, as being the Sugar Daddy of them all. "I think their generosity and open-handedness is key to their success," he says, adding that the directors, now a triumvirate of David Emmes, Martin Benson and Paula Tomei, are remarkably patient. He didn't deliver a 1986 commission until five years later, "yet they were very supportive throughout," he said. "They'd call occasionally, take me out to breakfast, ask me how it was going."
Greenberg was a bit faster on the draw for his most recent South Coast commission, Hurrah at Last, which begins performances there on May 22 and plays through June 28. The playwright says that the first draft of the family farce, set on Christmas Eve, took him all of five days to complete. "I needed the money, and I had a very short time to complete it, and so I wanted the speed of the composition to be an aesthetic property of the finished play," he says. "That was part of the fun. I wanted it to feel spontaneous."
In addition, Greenberg also made his own need for money to be one of the character's motivating factors, which gave the writing a great deal of momentum that carried him to the end. While the first part of the play takes place in a posh New York City loft, a good part of the second act is set in a hospital room. "Five years ago, I got sick," he explains, "and it was really galling to me that I hadn't written about it. I kept despairing over the fact that all the ideas were so banal that I decided to use the element of farce as a hedge against murkiness."
Greenberg says that his health is now fine, but that one of the things that he learned from the experience is that "sometimes it is good to be significantly interrupted. My illness was just the form that my particular interruption took."
The prolific playwright, whose Safe As Houses was presented at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey last month in a production directed by Emily Mann, says that he has a new commission from the South Coast Rep. ("It's a 'rolling' commission, which means that whenever I don't have one, they come up with one," he says.) Meanwhile, his play Three Days of Rain, which was widely acclaimed when it played at Manhattan Theatre Club, will have four or five productions on the regional circuit, including one, a year from now, at Steppenwolf in Chicago. "A place like South Coast is a wonderful place to work, a retreat for me," he says. "I've been feeling despondent lately, and so I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to going there to work [on Hurrah]. You won't find in me the Easterner's obligation to carp about Southern California. It's paradisal."-- By Patrick Pacheco