In 2006, Julia Roberts starred in a Broadway revival of his 1997 play Three Days of Rain. And now, Manhattan Theatre Club has brought back his 1990 work The American Plan — which, incidentally, had its New York premiere at MTC. Mercedes Ruehl and and Lily Rabe star as a mother and daughter of the early 1960s who have different reactions when a young man comes to call at their summer house in the Catskills. Greenberg is also represented on Broadway right now by his long-aborning libretto adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. The prolific and always-busy writer spoke to Playbill.com about the difference between young Richard Greenberg and old Richard Greenberg.
Playbill.com: This is the second time in the past few seasons when a play of yours, which had its debut Off-Broadway several years ago, has been given a revival on Broadway — the first being Three Days of Rain. When you reexamine these works many years after having written them, do they seem like different plays than what you remember?
Richard Greenberg: I can't say the experience has really been the same for the two. Even though The American Plan was written only six years before Three Days of Rain, they seem like significant years. American Plan seems much further away. American Plan had been done twice at Manhattan Theatre Club, in 1990 and 1991, and then I saw another production of it a year ago in San Diego. So I've been gradually pulled back into its sphere. It was very clear to me that it was a play by someone else. I felt a continuity as a writer more with Three Days of Rain. When I went back and made some revisions on The American Plan, I had to stop myself because I realized that I was very different then and that I could compromise the style of the play. I thought, "Well, I wouldn't write the scene that way now, but that's the point. Leave it alone." It is its own play and works on different terms than I work on now.
Playbill.com: How were you different as a writer back then?
RG: Younger. I was younger.
Playbill.com: Do you mean younger in your writing style or younger in your view on the world?
RG: All of that. There is a youth about that play that I clearly no longer have, and actually attracts me. And I can no longer either reenter it or abolish it. Or, I could abolish it, but that would be a bad idea. It's hard to itemize that quality of youth. It's intangible, but at the same time can be very succinct.
Playbill.com: What inspired the play in the first place?
RG: There were a couple of things. I was actually renting with a friend a cabin for the summer in the Catskills, and I hated it. I think I was in some sort of mental disarray at the time. I hated the cabin. I found it vaguely frightening. But I was there and I wanted to do something to remove myself, so I started writing. I also had had a friend who died very suddenly, a young woman. I went to this sort of meeting that happened a week or so after her death and I saw her mother and her mother's mother, and there was something in the quality of the interaction between them that was compelling and wouldn't go away. I tried mentally to trace that back. What was this mother like as a young woman? Playbill.com: But the character of the mother in the play, Eva, is so completely drawn. Was she based on anybody else you knew better?
RG: No. The grandmother of my friend, I only saw her that one night. But that was enough of a germ. I never learned anything about her.
Playbill.com: Do you think the play carries the same message today that you intended when you wrote it?
RG: Yeah. You know, I love the way it feels in a medium-large proscenium house, a traditional theatre. It feels more at home here. The truth about this play is it's never tortured me. I've been involved with fourth productions now and all of them have been excellent. I've never been unsatisfied.
Playbill.com: I had forgotten about the final scene that takes place ten years later.
RG: Oh my. It was always there.
Playbill.com: Well, it was 18 years ago when I first saw it. It's hard to remember everything about a play after a length time.
RG: Yes, I have trouble myself with that. We're doing Three Days of Rain on the West End now, and the director wants to have a conversation with me. I realized I need a minute to read it, because I'm not going to know what he's talking about!
Playbill.com: You have another show on Broadway right now: Pal Joey, for which you wrote a new book. Do any of John O'Hara's original lines remain in the book, or is it all yours?
RG: You know, I started 18, 19 years ago. And when I went back to it this time, I only worked off of my book. Originally, I went from O'Hara's book and read some of his short stories. So, it's hard for me to remember how much of O'Hara it was. There are certain passages that are his. But I think it's very different.
Playbill.com: I'm guessing it wasn't that difficult for you to immerse yourself in the kind of dialogue used in the time the musical is set.
RG: That was actually the first thing I did. When it was first proposed that I do this, I wrote a sample for myself of the text, to see if I could do it. And there was a reference in it to Crab Louis. And I thought, "I didn't know that I knew Crab Louis." And that was the pivotal point. I thought, if I can do that, I can write it.
Playbill.com: I also thought you wouldn't have any trouble visiting the past because your plays, taken together, have been set in almost every decade of the 20th century.
RG: Have I? Oh my God. Am I involved inadvertently on an August Wilson project?