The last time New York audiences got a taste of the work of playwright Craig Lucas was with The Dying Gaul, a seering, darkly satiric drama about Hollywood, personal and artistic betrayal, and the fate of moral responsibility in an amoral world. Many people—critics and theatregoers alike—thought the play the most striking thing they saw that season and interest was high enough for the piece to return for an encore run later in the year. Lucas has now returned with his follow-up, Stranger. He has reteamed with the company (The Vineyard Theatre) and the director (Mark Brokaw) that fostered The Dying Gaul. Soon after Stranger opens, Lucas don his other hat to direct the final play of the late Harry Kondoleon, Saved and Destroyed, at Rattlestick Theatre. Those who have met Lucas know him as one of the nicer guys in the theatre. That doesn't mean, however, that he doesn't have a caustic thing or two to say about the Tony Awards, theatre audiences, the quality of today's playwriting and life in general.
Playbill On-Line: Tell me about the inspiration for Stranger.
Craig Lucas: I read a news item in the early eighties, cut it out, lost it; I now forget most of the details, but last summer when I sat down to write a play, the idea insisted upon itself like an overeager student at the back of the class, thrusting and waving his hand in the air. I called on him.
PBOL: This is the second play of yours directed by Mark Brokaw. Have you found an artistic kinship with him?
CL: Yes, I feel I have. He has a rare combination of qualities which I find invaluable. My plays have always tended toward an ambiguity, a hovering question mark over experience, rather than an explication. Human beings are complex, often mysterious; to my mind, great plays give that full impact of lived experience, they are not reducible to high-concept bulletins or talking points. (Hamlet does not have a moral. It is irreducible, like life; it continues to confound and mystify and challenge and open out into more and more and more meanings. It cannot be adequately pegged.) Art is an experience which must be appreciated experimentally first and foremost, before analysis and theory and "understanding" can be applied. Part of what makes great art so powerful is that it is not ever entirely explainable; some aspect of it is numinous. anyway, that, all said, I think my plays are perhaps more dependent than some others on clarity of purpose from a director. Mark Brokaw insists on understanding each and every phrase, nuance, inflection, and his rigor is beyond praise. He never rests, he never lets up, nor does he ever tell me what to do, how to fix anything, change it; he asks questions, trusting the process of investigation, so the collaboration is an ongoing relationship. Mark immediately responds on a personal level to a play, and that point of view is what he brings to the table. He can tell you in precise words what the play means to him personally, what resonance it has, why he wants to do it. (This is not the same as saying "this is what the play means.") The cherry on top of the sundae is that he is never temperamental; he does not arrive late to rehearsals, he returns his phone calls, he doesn't grow impatient with his colleagues or lose his temper or freeze them out or keep them dependent on him for approval. He's from the midwest and has a refreshingly non ironic, non-know-it-all quality which makes him fun to be around. He likes to have a good time and he laughs a lot in rehearsal. I trust him implicitly, and just as importantly, I admire him. We don't always agree, but the marriage of our aesthetics has, I believe, taught us both a great deal, and I hope that process can go on for a long time.
PBOL: Following the disappointing reception of God's Heart, the critical praise which greeted The Dying Gaul must have been rewarding.
CL: Yes, it was. Very. And I also knew the play was going to frighten some people. It's harder with a new play if the subject matter or its events are unsettling. Of course, what happens with classic dramas is they are made safer by the foreknowledge of the material. Imagine seeing Medea with absolutely no idea what is going to happen. Or King Lear. The material becomes exponentially more disturbing. Sadly, there is a kind of museum quality to an awful lot of "serious" theatre in this country — plays which are so well-known and, purportedly, understood, that it is difficult to find a theatrical event which is both worthy and surprising. Particularly in New York, where people really don't want to be surprised, even if they say they do. Their days are full of unpleasant surprises — inconveniences and ugliness and lack of gentleness. They tend to read reviews very carefully so that the play won't catch them offguard or in any way unawares. They dread being the only person in town who doesn't know what something is about and how it ends and what the big surprise is and what the cultural consensus is before the curtain goes up. If you don't believe me, go and see a play before and again after the reviews have come out. If it doesn't make you cry, it certainly will make you laugh.
PBOL: Many considered The Dying Gaul the best play they saw that season. Did it feel like an artistic peak for you?
CL: Each play starts out as an attempt to achieve more, to learn something new, to go where you haven't gone before. If I know I can write a play, if I feel I absolutely know how to do it, I won't write it. There isn't enough challenge. And if I'm going to repeat myself, then why bother? I can use the time for better things — reading and traveling and being with friends and family. If I'm going to sweat bullets and lose sleep and face the hungry wolves night after night after night, it had better be something that's worth saying, or something formally challenging. Otherwise, it's just too hard. One knows it's going to be costly in terms of pain and doubt and struggle to get it right, so if it isn't going to aim at a higher peak each and every time, or rather if it doesn't hold out the chance that it could be an artistic peak, then I think the fight's already over. So much theatre is so safe as to be drained of any life at all, and this seems to keep all but the most stalwart theatre-lovers (and thrill starved tourists) away from theatre altogether. Who wants to pay a lot of money to see something that one can see done just as well if not better on TV or in a movie? This is absolutely part of why so few young people go to the theatre. They see the plays that are "supposed" to be good, and they think, "you're kidding, right? If this is good theatre, then theatre isn't for me." I hear this over and over and over again from young people who are not part of theatre culture or theatre schools.
The yearly Tony Awards TV broadcast does tremendous damage; the sheer banality and mediocrity of what gets seen there sends a clear signal to the uninitiated: STAY AWAY! It is so obvious to anyone but the League of New York Theatres and Producers that live theatre does not translate well on the TV screen. In fact, that's one of the things that is so great about it! It's different. It's live! It's dangerous, and on TV it comes off so lame and old-style and phony and over-acted, it's like they're trying to sell us a used car. Who in their right mind would want to go see that? Kevin Spacey and Brian Dennehy standing around at lecterns reading arbitrary lines from four different plays that have nothing to do with one another? It made me want to hide my face, deny I had ever had anything to do with theatre; it was mind-numbing and pathetic. If the June Taylor dancers are your idea of a good time, then maybe the Tony Awards show is just for you. Then you probably will love Fosse or Swing! or Moe's Moronic Cafe or whatever the newest non-show compendium of braindead songs and dances is now being passed off to the poor, unsuspecting, good-hearted tourist as "live" theatre. The best thing the Tony broadcast could possibly do is to show no clips at all, to keep theatre itself a magical secret which must be seen live to be experienced. Because that, in fact, is what is true. PBOL: There was more biting anger in The Dying Gaul than one usually associates with your work. Do you see it that way, and if so, where did the anger come from?
CL: I'm older, life has shown more of its full temperament. When you're young, it seems that tragedy can be escaped, and in this country I guess some people are lucky enough to not be dragged through tragic experiences, at least until they face their own deaths. But I have not been that lucky, and in some odd way I consider myself lucky for not having been spared some of that. For me it isn't a matter of "belief" that life is tragic. I know that life is tragic. That in itself is part of what makes so much of life precious. If nothing is ever burnished by sorrow or anguish or loss, then life is just a long romp in a wading pool with sober parents watching over at all times and sunlight shining and clean sheets. And much of what we read and see and hear in our corporate-owned media now tells us that life can be just that. The daytime talk shows somehow suggest that any experience can be gotten over, if one just finds the right therapist, rabbi, psycho-pharmacologist or talk show host.
PBOL: You direct more and more. Why the new interest?
CL: I'm learning something new, it feels good to help writers and actors find their way, and I love the things they have to teach me. I know this sounds like Pollyanna on crystal meth, but it's true.
PBOL: Does directing afford you a kind of satisfaction you can't get from writing?
CL: Yes, on the most basic level, it's more social; a kind of dialogue can take place, intimate discussions between people of different ages and classes and races and every conceivable difference between people, during the rehearsal process, an exchange of ideas that most of us don't have access to on ongoing basis; there is no public forum for this kind of dialogue, and rehearsing a play is unique in this regard. You can't work on a new play, if it's a serious play anyway, without touching on the intimate, the true, the deepest questions we share about our lives. That's the good part. The bad part is that directing is really hard. I'm made painfully aware of that by my lack of experience and expertise; plus there's a lot of hand holding and a lot of putting one's own feelings aside; great patience and compassion and even wisdom are called for. It's marvelous to find those qualities in oneself, but it's costly, too. There are moments when I just want to stand up and scream, "Oh get over yourselves, do it right, sit here, say it like this, cut this line!" — all the things I hate in directors when they do them!
PBOL: Why not direct one of your own plays?
CL: Because I think plays gain depth from more than one point of view. I have put my point of view into the play itself. A director then brings his/her point of view, and those two positions provide the dimension. Not to beat the dead horse for too long, but you can't see depth without two eyes, two points of view; cover one eye, and the world has only two dimensions.
PBOL: Tell me about the Harry Kondoleon play you're directing at the Rattlestick Theatre.
CL: It's his last play, written a few months before he died. It's about moving from one world to the next, it's incredibly funny and original, his best play, I believe.
PBOL: Were you a friend or merely a fan.
CL: Mostly a fan, though we did meet a few times; my lover was one of his doctors in the final year or so, and that brought us closer. He intimidated me, his precision of language, his vantage point. Even in the face of great suffering, Harry could be dazzlingly trenchant, and that made him, makes him heroic to me.
--By Robert Simonson