In her 45 years, Paula Vogel has written 22 plays, and you've probably only heard of a handful. She's best known as the author of The Baltimore Waltz, that extraordinary farce with a tragic underpinning, about a young woman with a rare disease embarking on an outrageous adventure.
The 1992 work at the late Circle Repertory established not only Vogel's reputation but that of pre-Heiress lead actress, Cherry Jones.
Other Vogel works, such as Desdemona and And Baby Makes Seven were less well received in New York and have surfaced regionally, and have been recently published, but Vogel is experiencing her greatest acclaim to date for How I Learned To Drive, a two character drama at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre, starring Mary Louise Parker and David Morse. The story concerns a young girl who gets driving lessons from her warm-hearted uncle -- whose designs on her turn out to be less-than-familial.
"That could have been a disaster," Vogel told Playbill On-Line over lunch at a midtown Thai restaurant. "If any element had been wrong, they would have turned on me as they did with Baby Makes Seven. There were people who called me `sick' with that show because it concerned a lesbian couple and their gay male friend trying to adopt a baby. But with How I Learned To Drive, it's the second time in my career when all the elements are just perfect, as they were with Cherry, Joe Mantello and Richard Thompson in Baltimore Waltz."
At the same time, Vogel readily rails against any standard of perfection in theatregoing. "Outside New York, there's still some flexibility in the audience. Even so, we tend to repress our emotions. We don't laugh as loud as we want to or allow ourselves to enjoy what's there -- especially if the critics tell us how to react. Instead, we keep narrowing the definition of what a play can be. We're losing the opportunity for someone like Samuel Beckett to spring up, because we no longer want our plays messy. But my God, sometimes we need mess. These are messy times and plays can reflect that. Angels In America is a mess -- and I mean that as a compliment. Hamlet is a mess. If someone wrote Hamlet today, first thing you'd hear a director say is, `that advice to the players bit doesn't advance the story...' Why do we only allow our classics to be messes?" Vogel, who teaches playwriting at Brown University ("it's a great day job!") says the problem comes from living in The Information Age. "I may be teaching, but in academia, they consider me the whore of Babylon, because I go against the basic academic thinking on plays and literature. We're supposed to approach these works through the brain, cognitively. But words attack meaning to get to emotion. An artist works viscerally, similarly to the way painting and music evoke an emotional language.
"I remember when Harvey Fierstein's first play after Torch Song came out," Vogel continued. "It was called Spookhouse with Anne Meara and the press hated it and called it boring. Now I watched people at intermission saying `it's such a boring play, such a boring play.' And while they're saying this, their hands are shaking. That was a devastating play, but it took people where they didn't want to go, and they couldn't acknowledge that.
"The audience has to meet the playwright halfway," Vogel said. "And that's happening less and less. People expect the playwright to put their experiences up onstage, but we need the writers who say, `No. You're going to translate me.'"
Vogel cites as her greatest influences Brecht (whom she hated at first), John Guare and Maria Irene Fornes. "If it hadn't been for Fornes' The Danube, there'd be no Baltimore Waltz," Vogel says.
With How I Learned To Drive eyeing a commercial Off-Broadway run at a larger space, and Vogel's latest, The Mineola Twins, headed for New York Theatre Workshop next season, Vogel would seem poised to push her playwriting career into overdrive. But she's not:
"I'm taking a two-year sabbatical from teaching, not only because I want to write a novel, but because it's very hard for me to keep encouraging new playwrights. I'm supposed to tell them to hang on. Hang on for what? Why not go to TV and film?" (That novel, by the way, is titled, "Travels Without Charlie," a reference to Vogel's late brother, who served (indirectly) as the subject for Baltimore Waltz.) That said, Vogel is still considering working on a long-considered play about Farinelli, "a love story about a famous castradi." Vogel explained: "When I saw Equus, I was so disturbed by its message. . . I wanted to show there can still be passion. That some white male psychiatrist can't simply drain all the passion out of another human being."
Vogel also points out that although both Drive and Mineola have autobiographical elements, they're absolutely not true stories of her own life. "As a playwright you put memories into every single character. With Mineola I did research; you try to capture the geography of a place and time. What happens in Drive isn't about my life, but everybody has their own back roads. . ."
Even with her heightened profile these days, Vogel feels left out of mainstream theatre, and feels she speaks for a lot of playwrights. "There are theatres in this country that I call, 'feet first' theatres. They don't produce you until you're dead. Yale Rep was like that, although they did eventually do Baltimore Waltz. I've been pursuing Lincoln Center for 25 years. And there's no theatre in the country willing to touch my 1994 play, Hot 'N' Throbbing, written a full year before the O.J. Trial. There was a production in Boston that the Globe called `too disturbing.'"
Ultimately Vogel, 45, feels two theories have wrecked the American theatre: Darwinism and capitalism. "The idea that only the strongest survive has no place in the theatre. Every time Robbie Baitz or Wendy Wasserstein has a hit, I cheer for them, because it's a victory for all playwrights. I've never met a play I didn't like. As far as capitalism, the arts have never been governed by the laws of supply and demand. In art, supply creates demand."
Theatre modeled after movies is also a Vogel pet peeve -- one most critics share with her. That said, Vogel has been told there's serious movie interest in Drive: "My agent, Peter Franklin, protects me from the highs and the lows. He lets the smoke clear and then we sort out the options. For Drive, I already say the Passover term, `Dayenu,' meaning even this would have been enough."
--By David Lefkowitz