Playwright Stephen Belber Encourages Shifting Sympathies in His Family Drama Don't Go Gentle

By Harry Haun
29 Sep 2012

Stephen Belber
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

A month before the play opened, Belber did not go gentle into Los Angeles. He went to drum up interest in a TV series he'd written about a Wall Street alpha male who gets entangled in a whole different socioeconomic situation from his past as a collegiate drug-peddler. Belber also went to stoke some sparks for no less than five screenplays that are said to be sleeping on the desks of assorted producers.

"Every time I go to L.A. — and I've been working all these movies, and none of them are getting made — everybody is saying, 'You're crazy for not doing television. This is the golden age of television. What are you doing, trying to write movies?'"

Apparently Off-Broadway, where Belber does his most and best work (Dusk Rings a Bell, Tape, Fault Lines), is beyond these advisors' purview, but it's home for him, and having deposited his token attempt at TV, he has quickly relapsed into old habits.

He expects to be back Off-Broadway next with The Power of Duff, about an upstate anchorman who gets religious on the air and rocks Rochester with what are perceived as miracles.

"It was a big movie sale for me seven years ago and got me a lot of work. It was to be Ron Howard and Russell Crowe, but that didn't happen. Marc Platt bought it for Universal, then asked me to turn it into a play, which wasn't easy. In theatrical form, it sill ended with 62 scenes, but it went over well this summer at Vassar's New York Stage and Film" — with Greg Kinnear in his first stage acting ever, and a crackerjack supporting cast (Dominic Fumusa, Neal Huff, Jennifer Westfeldt, Ilana Levine, Desmin Borges) that could accompany him to New York.

Come November, Belber will adapt and direct the film of his single Broadway bid — Match — with Patrick Stewart in Frank Langella's Tony-nominated role of an effete ballet teacher and possible parent.

"Broadway is definitely more pressure," he recalls with a shiver. "You're still learning about the play, and, halfway through previews, I was trying to rewrite it. I welcome another stab at it because, for this movie, I've learned there's more there. I just ran out of time on Broadway."

Belber began playwriting by writing solo shows for himself and, as a result, is a cut above most playwrights in the acting department. In the two Laramie Project plays, where he researched, co-wrote and performed, he's the bartender who served Matthew Shepard his last drink and a quasi-wise town soothsayer; in its ten-year sequel, he's more or less himself interviewing one of the killers. Both plays will return in rep at BAM for ten days in February, and Belber's excited about being on the boards again. "I do feel my limited acting experience has absolutely made me a better writer."

(This feature appears in the October 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)