Playwright Richard Greenberg's Triple-Play Season Was Nurtured in an Unlikely Workplace

By Jonathan Mandell
24 Mar 2013

Richard Greenberg
Richard Greenberg
Photo by Mark Avery

For playwright Richard Greenberg, represented by Breakfast at Tiffany's, Far From Heaven and The Assembled Parties in the current New York season, the magic of theatre begins at his "office" — a New York City diner.

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Richard Greenberg vividly remembers his first trip into New York City, when his parents drove from their Long Island home to the theatre district, passing the marquee for Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis, Jr. "I remember being completely dazzled by the look of it, the rhythm of it," he says. "I have some weird memory of this general goldenness—buildings that advertised butterscotch luminosity. I was probably five years old."

Greenberg moved to the city looking for that luminosity, just as many others have before and since, in real life and in fiction — few more memorable than Holly Golightly, the self-invented New Yorker who lives in a run-down brownstone apartment on the Upper East Side in Truman Capote's 1958 novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Greenberg has adapted the story for a play of the same name, starring Emilia Clarke, now at Broadway's Cort Theatre.

If, as E.B. White wrote in his famous essay "Here Is New York," people come to the city "seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail," what many wind up getting is…overworked. Richard Greenberg is a quintessential example. This season, he has three new shows bowing in New York.

"He's the busiest playwright in New York right now," says Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, who is directing Greenberg's new play, The Assembled Parties, about the changing lives of a family on the Upper West Side, with a cast that includes Judith Light and Jessica Hecht. The play opens at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre April 17 — less than a month after Breakfast at Tiffany's opened. A month after that, the musical theatre adaptation of the 2002 film "Far From Heaven," for which Greenberg wrote the book, begins at Playwrights Horizons. "I'm still writing all of them," he said in March.

Emilia Clarke in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Photo by Nathan Johnson

"He's a brilliant juggler," says Meadow.

Greenberg disagrees. "I'm barely a mono-tasker," he says. When he has to multi-task, he says, he gets bronchitis. He thinks he may be handling things better than he used to, though. "This time I had bronchitis only for six weeks," and it was before the crunch of rehearsals and rewrites. "The greater anxiety was before it was underway because I had no idea how it was going to work."

When Holly gets "the mean reds," she goes to Tiffany's and finds it calming. Greenberg retreats to the Moonstruck Diner, his neighborhood hangout for as long as he has lived in Chelsea, which is about a quarter of a century, after graduating from Princeton, dropping out of Harvard graduate studies in literature, and getting a degree from the Yale School of Drama.

"This is a very New York thing, diners," Greenberg says over a muffin and small fruit salad at the 23rd Street eatery. "People talk about alienation in the city. Diners are a place where you feel comfortable, an extension of your house. My first agent, Helen Merrill, used to call this place my office."

Indeed, it was at the Moonstruck that Greenberg first got together with Scott Frankel after seeing the very last performance of the composer's Broadway musical Grey Gardens, hoping the two could figure out a project on which to collaborate. "Within minutes I blurted out 'Far From Heaven.'" The film, starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, is about a housewife in the 1950s who discovers that her husband is attracted to men — and that she herself is attracted to an African-American neighbor.

"There's an emotional intensity in the film that seems as if people are on the verge of singing all the time." The conversation with Frankel happened over five years ago; Kelli O'Hara is set to star in the Playwrights Horizons production in May. "Musicals take forever," Greenberg says. "I was determined to change as little as possible, but it turned out I had to do some original stuff for the stage."

It was also at Moonstruck that Greenberg met Colin Ingram, the producer of an adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's on the West End. "He came to me, wanting to start from scratch." That meant ignoring not just the London production, but the 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn, and for certain the 1966 Broadway musical, which starred Mary Tyler Moore and had a book written by Edward Albee, but is remembered as one of the worst flops in Broadway history; producer David Merrick shut it down before it opened, after just four preview performances. Instead Greenberg focused on the novella. "When I read the book I thought, 'this is so theatrical, and the plot is so strong.'" His main change was to make explicit what he sees as implicit in the book; the lead male character "is a gay man who is in love with a woman."

Judith Light stars in The Assembled Parties.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Greenberg considers it a triumph that he recently convinced Meadow to come to Moonstruck to discuss The Assembled Parties, the eighth play of his that MTC has produced. "I felt so powerful." ("Actually," Meadow says, "I used to go to that diner all the time.")

At one point in the new play, a visitor named Jeff, awed by the family's apartment, thinks he has finally found in its 14 rooms the real New York: "It's like you go to New York and you look for New York. But it isn't there. But it's here."

Greenberg explains that his own experience inspired the line. "I came to New York and it was fascinating and intimidating and yielding, and all the stuff it's supposed to be. But whatever the abstract essence I was seeking, I couldn't find exactly that" — until he was invited to an apartment near Central Park. "I thought: 'Oh yes, here is New York.'"

All eight of Greenberg's plays produced by MTC have been set wholly or in part in New York City, as have most of his ten plays that have been on Broadway, including his best-known, Take Me Out, for which he won a Tony Award in 2003, about a star New York baseball player coming out as gay.

"Helen Merrill said, 'I think you're going to be a New York writer.' I guess it more or less has turned out that way."