Playwright Jonathan Reynolds knows how to get attention, whether it's with his satiric assault on Political Correctness, Stonewall Jackson's House, or his latest, Girls in Trouble, which gives full, fiery voice to the Pro-Life side of the abortion argument.
It took Reynolds 12 years to get a production of Stonewall on. When he finally did, however, it was a critical and popular hit, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That achievement, though, didn't cut any ice with artistic directors when he began shopping around his latest hot-topic play, which once had the subtitle (Formerly Three Abortions). Reynolds has gone public with his contentions that the overwhelmingly liberal theatre community was either afraid or unwilling to give his play's conservative viewpoints a dramatic airing. He eventually found a patron in Jim Simpson, the artistic director of downtown Manhattan's Flea Theatre. Simpson also directs the piece, which is divided into three sections — one set in the 1960s, one in the early '80s and one today. Reynolds talked to Playbill.com about the national subject that nobody likes to talk about.
Playbill.com: What motivated you to write this play?
Jonathan Reynolds: Oh, gosh. A fascination with the subject and the characters in it. Part of it is slightly personal autobiography, not that it happened to me exactly as it does in the play.
Playbill.com: Are you talking about the first section of the play, where a college boy in the early 1960s drives a girl to get an illegal abortion?
JR: Yes, the first section. I then got interested in the subject. I thought [the subject] hadn't been clearly defined or brought up to date, even though you see it all the time on television. One of the things that aggravates me about the theatre is that on social issues they're often behind the curve. I didn't think that the position of the pro-lifer was particularly well articulated in anything I'd seen on stage. Playbill.com: What part of the first section was autobiographical?
JR: I and another woman did get an abortion when I was in college. The surroundings of it and what happens in the play — that's not what happened. But it was a journey [to the abortionist], and it seemed to me there was a heartlessness about it. It probably is somewhat the same today, but not in the same way, because it was illegal then and it was actually dangerous to get it. It was fraught with a lot more than an intellectual or moral position. You could go to jail for it and the girl could get really damaged or die. It was in inner-city Cleveland. It was a scary place for a college kid to go to.
Playbill.com: This play actually began as a commission from Long Wharf, right?
JR: Yes it was. Gordon Edelstein and I had lunch and I told him I had this idea about writing a play about abortion. He said, "This sounds great." When I turned it in to him, he said "You know, I've been worried about this ever since I agreed to commission it." He read it and said he liked it a lot. Then we had some production agreements on how to change it, and we agree to part ways.
Playbill.com: You've spoken in the press about your difficulty in getting anyone to produce the play. Could you talk more about that?
JR: I'd be glad to. Everyone just said no. A couple of them said, "Our audience won't stand for this. This goes so against the grain of our philosophy." ...That was, whether spoken or unspoken, what happened at several theatres in town. It happened at Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizons, The Public. I think the Public preaches to the choir all the time, and they think it's really in-your-face, but it's not very risky. I think that, in particular, is a theatre that should really being doing things that provoke an audience. Although, I didn't write this to provoke. I wrote this because I was fascinated with the pro-lifers' arguments. I thought they really are well thought out, and they're kind of better thought out that the current Left thinking. I talked to lots of people involved with Planned Parenthood and other organizations and they really didn't have much to counter the scientific proof that there's something that's actually formed and is alive in there. I don't want to give anything away from what the pro-lifer in the play says, but it's in the play what I really think about this.
Playbill.com: I was going to ask you to what extent does the play express your stand on the abortion issue, because you express a lot of different opinions in the play.
JR: Well, good, I'm glad you think so. Most people who go into the theatre with a definite stand on abortion — and because it's a theatre crowd, they're mostly in favor of choice — come away thinking it's some kind of right-wing play that's somehow against abortion. I keep saying, "You should listen to the play, because that's not what it says." But there's a woman in the play who has an articulate point of view on that [pro-life] side of the issue, and they're not used to seeing that on stage.
Playbill.com: I would think that if you really wanted to push the pro-life position, you wouldn't have chosen to end the play the way you did. Without giving away the ending, it's hard to believe that anyone will sympathize with the play's single pro-life character after she does what she does.
JR: (Laughs) Robert, I think you're absolutely right. I don't think I'm going to make any friends on either side.
Playbill.com: Was that always the ending?
JR: That was always the ending. My take on that is that she is following through on her commitment. She wants to bring babies into the world and wants the mother to live. From her point of view, she's done the right thing. People in the audience don't feel that way.
Playbill.com: To my mind, the most likable character in the play, ironically, was the abortionist in the first section of the play. Was that your intention? She was the only person that cared about that young woman.
JR: Oh! Well, that's interesting. Yes, she is caring about her. And she's very calm and quiet and, as far as we know, doesn't make any mistakes and knows what she's doing.
Playbill.com: How did Flea artistic director Jim Simpson enter the picture?
JR: We had a reading here in the city. The third act is what gave everyone difficulty, because it's long and — I don't want to say it about myself — but they called it "Bad Shaw." Some sort of Shavian attempt to have a discussion about this, and it's exhausting. And the subject of it and the way it evolved gave people trouble. Everyone sitting there was quite sober, but Jim was giggling over all the lines. I thought, "This guy is seeing something in it that nobody else sees." When Gordon passed, I thought right away of Jim because he responded so positively. We worked quite well together.
Playbill.com: You're aware that Simpson has been a big supporter of the political plays of A.R. Gurney, which are distinctly liberal in tone.
JR: I know. Pete and I are friends and argue all the time over dinner. Yes, he is quite on the Left. He's one of the people who leaned on Jim and said, "You really ought to do this," and said, "Jonathan, you really ought to do this at the Flea." He was a great broker of this.
Playbill.com: Are you working on any new plays?
JR: I am. I'm working on two. One is a completely non-political farce. Because these political things, particularly if you don't have the popular political stance, are really murder get on. It's been a long haul. And Stonewall Jackson's House took almost 12 years to get on. It was turned down by everybody. Playbill.com: What's the second play?
JR: One is about journalistic responsibility.
Playbill.com: Ah. Another one that'll take 12 years to get on.
JR: Exactly. At least.