Watching John Patrick Shanley's caustic, paint-peeling new comedy, Where's My Money? (which began life this past summer at LAByrinth Theatre Company and is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club), one can't help but postulate: This man has been through a divorce. Well, actually Shanley's been through two, and he wrote his quick, cutting play while suffering through the second. Thus, he had plenty of material to draw upon when creating the play's four central characters: two paranoid, sharkish divorce lawyers, armed with sleek suits and strong lungs; and their shrewish, scheming wives. When not upbraiding each other with lengthy comic tirades, this quartet is kept busy fending of the unwanted attentions of two ghosts (one of whom makes the titular demand, "Where's My Money?" for rather surprising reasons). Shanley—the author of such plays as Cellini and Four Dogs and a Bone—talked to Playbill On-Line shortly after Money began its run at Manhattan Theatre Club and soon before he returned to work on the musical version of his film, "Moonstruck."
Playbill On-Line: Where's My Money? is one of the most lacerating comedies I've seen in years. Where did all that anger come from?
John Patrick Shanley: I've been married and divorced twice. But, over and above that, that was sort of a magnet for me to pick up on a lot of other experiences people I had known had had, and questions I had about the institution of marriage, and divorce—which is also an institution; to sort of demonstrate a fork in the road of two marriages where the guy has suffered some sort of disenchantment and has to come up with a sort of tactic for how he is going to proceed in the future. And it sort of shows what happens if you go one way and what might happen if you go the other way. Also, [for me] to have as much fun as possible [writing it] along the way.
PBOL: Your second divorce happened only recently. Were you writing the play at the time?
PBOL: I got the feeling that you were scribbling down each scene between meetings with divorce lawyers.
JPS: [Laughs] Well, you know, my lawyers came and saw the show.
PBOL: They did? What did they think?
JPS: They loved it. They were a little horrified. [Laughs] They're very nice people. They were like, "Is this what you think divorce lawyers are like?" I said, "No! It has nothing to do with you!" PBOL: Did they see anything of themselves in the characters?
JPS: They didn't tell me if they did. But they got a big kick out of it.
PBOL: Your plays usually debut at larger theatres than LAByrinth. How did you get hooked up with that company?
JPS: I have a friend, John Gould Rubin, who's working over there, and John Ortiz—who is one of the guys who heads that place—I had cast in a play of mine years ago. So I knew John. I started going over there, saw a couple things they did and I became very impressed with them in several different ways. One of the [things] I liked very much that it was a truly multi-ethnic theatre. I liked the idea of writing a play that celebrated that multi-ethnicity without ever talking about it. I feel so often that Hispanic actors get cast as Hispanic people and their identities revolve around the fact that they're Hispanic, rather than that they're people. Black actors—the same thing. I don't get why you can't write a play for this group of people and cast it from them and have it be multi-ethnic, like New York is, and never talk about race. And I just liked them as a group. There's a lot of talent there, and a lot of good will. So I wrote it for them and did it there and I had one of the more pleasant experiences I've had in a long time.
PBOL: It's unusual for Manhattan Theatre Club to pick up a production that's already been presented by another New York theatre. How did that transaction come about?
JPS: [MTC artistic director] Lynne Meadow and Michael Bush just zipped right over to the LAByrinth to see it. I'd done five shows with them previous to that. And I think that they wanted me back. They saw the show and they liked it and they offered to move it to MTC irrespective of reviews, which I thought was pretty gutsy. What if everybody said it stank and then they were stuck with it?!
PBOL: Was there any question about keeping the cast?
JPS: They just basically asked me, "Are you happy with this cast?" and I said yes. And then of course we ended up losing John Ortiz to a television show.
PBOL: Has the script changed at all since then?
JPS: A great deal. At the end of the play now, both ghosts come back. It's a significant difference. It's the end of the fifth scene. One character is denying she saw a ghost and a fist punches right through the door and grabs her by the throat. She starts screaming and the husband, who has been saying that she's being haunted by this ghost, says "There he is. There's the dead meat mother fucker himself!" And he starts screaming for the ghost to let her go. He says, "I command you to let her go!" And she screams, "He's not listening to you!" So he drags her away from the arm and she's very relieved and says, "I'm fine, I'm fine." [The husband] lets her go and she gets sucked right back upstage into the ghost's arm again. The husband says, "I can't save you if you don't want to be saved." That happens twice. She says, "What does he want?" and he says "The money," and she doesn't want to give it to him. She gets sucked back in again and he pulls her free again. Then she stays in the ghost's grip and the husband says, "Pay the man his money!" And she says, "OK, I'll pay his God damned blood money!" She gives him the money and the door opens and there the ghost, headless, is standing in the door. She goes over, hands him his money and tells him to go back to Hell. There's another thing that's strung through the play about this white enamel alligator pen—it ends up being the punch line of the show.
PBOL: MTC has a decidedly different audience demographic than LAByrinth...
JPS: You mean they're older! [Laughs]
PBOL: I was trying to put it diplomatically.
JPS: Well, what I said to the cast is "We're getting an unusual opportunity, because we're hitting two groups. Down at the LAByrinth Theatre, it's a very young audience, a kind of poverty-stricken audience. And then, when you go up to MTC, it's a much older audience, more affluent. It's nice to get the ears of many people."
PBOL: And how is the reaction at MTC?
JPS: Well, the LAByrinth audience is raucous, but the MTC audience, we always hold them.
PBOL: What's the status of the musical of Moonstruck?
JPS: It's there, waiting for me. We meet soon. They're waiting for me to come back. We're in the second act now. It's only two acts, so we're getting there and what we have is really good. It'll take us a few more months and we'll be done. In the meantime, I'm doing something called The Winter Party, which is a cabaret for the holidays that I'm doing at the LAByrinth Theatre. That's coming up. I've written it and am co writing music with Daniel Harnett. That's going quite well. It's for kids and adults.
—By Robert Simonson