David Lindsay-Abaire isn't the type of playwright to leave well enough alone. Despite the warm critical and audience reception accorded his newest work, Wonder of the World, in Washington, D.C. this summer, Lindsay Abaire has done drastic rewriting for the play's current production at Manhattan Theatre Club.
The show, directed by Christopher Ashley and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kevin Chamberlin, Alan Tudyk and Kristine Nielsen, is a wacky yet touching farce which revolves around Cass (played by Parker), who abruptly leaves her husband of seven years— after discovering a bizarre secret about his sexual predilections—and runs away to Niagara Falls in an attempt to start over and find the meaning of her life.
"I learned a lot from that production," says Lindsay-Abaire, 31. "I needed to focus on the storytelling aspects of the show. I had lost track of the characters' journey in the second act. It had become too farcical, you know, lots of slamming doors. Now, it just explodes."
Audiences who see both versions will notice some other major changes. For one, the characters of Karla and Glen were aged dramatically; from thirtysomethings to senior citizens. "They were wacky ingenues in other productions. But when I started thinking about the cast for this show, I immediately thought about Marylouise Burke, who's done four shows of mine [including Fuddy Meers, for which she won the Drama Desk Award]. The show is, in some ways, about marriage, so it made sense to have this older couple who've been married for 38 years, on the scene."
Lindsay-Abaire also transformed the small but pivotal role of Janie, a therapist, once the great Amy Sedaris had been cast. (Sedaris also plays a variety of smaller roles.) "I immediately started writing for her voice," he admits. "I've been obsessed with Amy since college, when I saw all those Talent Family shows. I couldn't believe it when she said yes." Naturally, Lindsay-Abaire is equally thrilled having the ultra-hot Parker fill Cass' shoes. "She is so likeable, so game, that the audience can immediately get on board with her. As I've written her, Cass is pretty demented or selfish, and Sarah Jessica prevents the audience from thinking that."
And yet, did he feel there was a danger in using an actress so defined by her current television character? "Cass is so not Carrie Bradshaw; she's not savvy or sexy," he says. "I hope and think people will forget about Carrie by the time the first scene is over."
As should be evident, Lindsay-Abaire loves actresses, and vice versa. (He's still hoping to create a piece for Janeane Garafolo, having recently scrapped the play he was writing for her, Jiminy Christmas.) Is that why women dominate his plays?
"The psychological answer is that my mother is a really funny, very outspoken, bigger-than-life woman. And she's an amazing storyteller. So it's no surprise she's influenced my work," he says.
"But the other answer is, yes, I know a lot of great female actors and I know there are fewer great parts for them. So if it doesn't matter to me which gender plays a role, I feel a responsibility to create a part for a woman." If Lindsay-Abaire is trying to get every detail of Wonder of the World right, no one can blame him. The pressure is definitely on. He has just been awarded the coveted Kesselring Prize—an honor previously bestowed on Tony Kushner, David Auburn and Anna Deavere Smith among others—for his play Kimberly Akimbo (to be produced by MTC next season). The award will presented to him on Nov. 18 at the National Arts Club.
"I didn't think I had a shot in hell of winning, it was such a strong list," he says. "But what's particularly nice about it is that it proves I'm not a one-hit wonder."
That hit, of course, is Fuddy Meers —which transferred from MTC to a commercial production two seasons ago. "I actually think there's no way to live up to those expectations. Very few plays will ever do that well, which I think it did for the most random of reasons," he says. "It wasn't just my talent. The director [David Petrarca] and the cast at MTC totally understood it. I've seen some regional productions of it that are just torturous. All they play is wacky.
"I know some people see my work as if it's not about real life, that it's just absurdist, farcical stuff," he adds. "But there's a more truthful quality that some people don't want to look for."
For this reason, Lindsay-Abaire has chosen to forgo a big-bucks, big studio production of the film of Fuddy Meers, and is tackling the screenplay himself. Which, he admits, is quite a challenge.
"I've had to really re-imagine the story, and tell it more through visuals," he says. "It's become much more of a road movie. I didn't want the whole second half to take place in Gertie's house, like in the play. And Claire [the piece's protagonist, an amnesiac trying to piece her life together] has become much more active, much more of a detective in solving her own mystery."
In many ways, the same sentiment applies to Wonder's Cass. "She is searching for the meaning of her life, like many of us, especially after September 11," he says. "People need signs to give them guidance, something to believe in. And that's hard to find."
— Brian Scott Lipton