Chatting With 'Best Plays' Editor Jeffrey Sweet

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Chat Transcript: "Best Plays" Editor Jeffrey Sweet

Chat Transcript: "Best Plays" Editor Jeffrey Sweet

Jeffrey Sweet, a playwright and one of the editors of "The Otis Guernsey/Burns Mantle Theater Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1994-1995," appeared Dec. 15 in a chat on Playbill On-Line. A transcript follows this introduction.

Swået, along with co-editor Otis Guernsey, are continuing a 75-year-old tradition in producing the indispensable reference guide on 20th Century American theatre. Their choices for the top ten plays include some of the most prominent names in theatre today.

The 1994-95 titles are, in alphabetical order:

"After-Play" by Anne Meara"Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard

"Camping With Henry and Tom" by Mark St. Germain

"The Cryptogram" by David Mamet

"Hapgood" by Tom Stoppard

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" by Terrence McNally

"Night and Her Stars" by Richard Greenberg

"Sunset Boulevard," libretto by Don Black and Christopher Hampton

"A Tuna Christmas" by Joe Sears and Jaston Williams

"The Young Man From Atlanta" by Horton Foote.

Hosting the event were Katia Lundy, Associate Editor of Playbill On-Line, and Robert Viagas, Managing Editor of Playbill On-Line.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q is from Franki

Question: Jeffrey, would you say this was one of the weakest lists you've had? I mean "Tuna Christmas"? "Hapgood" is a great play - but by no means new - it was done in LA, SF and Seattle years ago. "Night and Her Stars" was poorly received for the most part, etc.?

Jeffrey Sweet: I wouldn't underestimate A TUNA CHRISTMAS. It's a pretty smart and intricate piece. The convention of the book is that we deal with plays as they come into New York. Hapgood came into town last season. I think NIGHT AND HER STARS was seriously underestimated. It was very instructive to see how it told the same story as QUIZ SHOW but emphasized different elements.

QUIZ SHOW was about a betrayal of trust with the American public NIGHT AND HER STARS was about losing touch with what language means. It was, to some degree, about how our reality is shaped by language. A very subtle and ultimately very moving play. I'm sorry more people didn't get to see it.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q comes from GBADGER

Question: Were the picks harder to make this year than in past years?

Jeffrey Sweet: Not really. Every year you start wondering how you're gonna find 10 then you end up wondering how you can keep it to only ten. Of course, some years are richer than others.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This is from Rim26

Question: Hi Jeff--I just saw your ad in TheaterWeek for the retreat; I'll be calling for more info--how long have you been doing these retreats??

Jeffrey Sweet: The first one was last summer and it was a blast. Three other teachers and I work with a bunch of students from morning till night on improv techniques. It was thrilling! At the end of the week we realized we'd all entertained each other entirely by our own devices. No TV, no movies, and we hadn't missed them! And in the meantime, a lot of friendships were made. A thrilling experience.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q's for you from Rathcat

Question: Where is the future of musicals headed? In past years one could count on 30 new musicals made in a year, now, one can only hope for 1 or 2, do you think this art will ever become extinct?

Jeffrey Sweet: I don't think the musical will ever be extinct, but the ranks are thinning for economic reasons. They won't be extinct as long as I'm alive. Under another hat I write musicals. I wrote one with Melissa Manchester and another with Howard Marren and Susan Birkenhead that was a big hit in Tokyo of all places! Also, my friend Robert Viagas is working on a musical, so the form is still alive and kicking.

Robert Viagas (Playbill On-Line): A lot of musicals open around the US and are successful without coming to NY. Example: "Jekyll & Hyde."

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): FrankiCa's question

Question: Is that one of the joys of your job - being able to recognize a piece that maybe was poorly reviewed?

Jeffrey Sweet: It is the best part of the job. By the time my review comes out, the fate of a show has usually been decided. But every now and then I can say, "Hey, take a second look at this one that the TIMES didn't like." And sometimes a regional theatre does. For instance, the TIMES originally hated THE LOMAN FAMILY PICNIC. I chose it as one of the ten in the year it premiered. Later it came back and was re-reviewed for the TIMES by a different critic and was very successful. I felt good about that. It was a fine play, and Mel Gussow -- I felt -- didn't get it when he wrote about it.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): From ChuckStra

Question: What is your basis in choosing the best plays?

Jeffrey Sweet: Most of it is my taste, but there are some that demand to be included because they help to define the season or win major prizes. For instance, I wasn't over the rainbow over SUNSET BLVD., but not to include it would be like trying to describe Paris without referring to a certain tower. When I have reservations about a play that has been included, I articulate those in my introductory article. For instance, I wasn't as crazy about ARCADIA as the rest of the world but not to include it would have been perverse. So I included it, but articulated the problems I'd had with it.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): JS, Considering these are the "Best Plays," why do you think many of them are not running now?

Jeffrey Sweet: For one thing, some of them were presented as limited engagements in subscription houses. For another, in American culture, not everything of value is

rewarded on a par with its merit!

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q's from FrankCa

Question: Jeffrey, what about HAVING OUR SAY? Certainly one of the best received shows of the year.

Jeffrey Sweet: I admired HAVING OUR SAY, but I felt it was more of a presentation than a play. And I say this being a great admirer of Emily Mann's work. I don't think anybody could have done a better job with the material. But it didn't ask a dramatic question that sustained the audience through the evening. And that's one of the things I look for in a play. It's one of the things that separates a play from some other kind of theatrical event. In my opinion.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): From CMBALFour

Question: Couldn't resist "Arcadia" based on [New York] Times' review, but completely mystified by its popularity--please explain your view

Jeffrey Sweet: Some people were thrilled by the display of intellectual fireworks I thought the stuff came at us so fast it was hard to assimilate in the audience Or it was hard for me to, at any rate. People who read the play first tended to admire it more. But I think a play shouldn't be dependent upon a prior reading. I think a play should reach its potential in performance. For me, ARCADIA didn't quite do that. But, as I say, a lot of people embraced it warmly.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Jeffrey Sweet is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the author of "Something Wonderful Right Away : An Oral History of the Second City & The Compass Players" (Limelight Editions, 1986).

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Robert's question

Question: Over the years you've been doing Best Plays, what was your most controversial choice?

Jeffrey Sweet: Probably KVETCH, Stephen Berkoff's abrasive play. It was pretty strong stuff, but ultimately a very stimulating evening, with a terrific performance by Laura Esterman. I remember that VARIETY ran an article wondering if I'd lost my senses. I didn't think I had, but . . .

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): From Rathcat

Question: Why don't we see musicals that are made into motion pictures anymore? And don't the television movie "Bye, Bye, Birdie" That wasn't even the same musical, it was horrible, atrocious, who MADE THAT?!! But anyway, answer my real question, Why are musicals not made into motion pictures anymore?

Jeffrey Sweet: Partially because musical theatre music and popular music are no longer one and the same thing. Also, when you make a movie musical, you have to create a world in which singing and dancing seem organic. That's a gift few directors today seem to know how to do except in the surreal world of the rock video. However, I hear there are versions of SWEENEY TODD and INTO THE WOODS in the pipeline. Also EVITA. We'll see.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Robert has a great question.

Question: Have you ever been tempted to include one of your own plays? Or is that verboten?

Jeffrey Sweet: I can't include my own. But Otis [Guernsey, Sweet's co-editor] reserves the right to include something of mine if he wants to. Last year, he liked my play AMERICAN ENTERPRISE very much and wanted to include it I told him the play wasn't sufficiently well-received for him to include it as one of the 10 So he decided to make it a bonus play -- number 11. That way, mine wouldn't displace anybody else's. I thought that was kind of an elegant compromise. But there was some credibility there -- the play had won the American Theatre Critics Association's play writing award and was nominated for the Outer Critics award, so it wasn't like he was the only one who liked it!

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This comes from WJBstages

Question: Was John Logon's "Never the Sinner" considered?

Jeffrey Sweet: It hasn't played in new York yet. As it happens, it's playing in Chicago upstairs from where my new play is running. My new play, by the way, is WITH AND WITHOUT. Both of them are being produced by the Victory Gardens Theatre on Lincoln Avenue.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Do you ever speak with the playwrights at all to get a better insight about their play?

Jeffrey Sweet: Not while I'm writing about it, no. Sometimes I'll check with a writer afterwards, just to see if what I got is what was intended. I remember talking to Mamet about AMERICAN BUFFALO. I told him I thought it was a comment on how Watergate morality had trickled down into American life. He liked that. And Wally Shawn liked what I had to say about AUNT DAN AND LEMON enough that he said he was going to use it when people asked him what the play was about! (Don't know if he ever did, but it was nice of him to say so.)

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): FrankiCa is back with this q.

Question: Jeffrey - Tuna Xmas "asks a dramatic question that sustains an audience through the evening"?! Wasn't that more of a presentation, too. grin

Jeffrey Sweet: No, I think there was a dramatic question there. I think it was about the discontinuity between the public rituals and the private lives. At heart, it's a pretty sad play, actually. Almost everyone is miserable and dysfunctional and feels as much oppressed by the enforced cheeriness of the holiday as anything else. Almost as depressing as my favorite modern Christmas play -- Alan Ayckbourn's SEASON'S GREETINGS. Great play.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Q from WJBstages

Question: Stoppard is really a unique playwright. Can you compare him with someone past to explain the popularity of his work . . . Woody Allen?

Jeffrey Sweet: I don't see that Stoppard and Woody Allen are all that comparable except that they both tend to write about white people who are comfortably off!

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Iridium1's Q

Question: Hi. Wondering if you've heard any rumblings about Tony Randall's upcoming new play, "Inherit the Wind?"

Jeffrey Sweet: Well, it's not that new a play. In fact, it's very old. It premiered before I was born. Randall was in the original cast. It's also been made into a movie and done on TV several times. I played the lead in high school! It's a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial in the 1920s. About the battle for intellectual freedom. A very timely play still.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Again, Jeffrey Sweet Best play picks are:

The titles are in alphabetical order:

"After-Play" by Anne Meara

"Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard

"Camping With Henry and Tom" by Mark St. Germain

"The Cryptogram" by David Mamet

"Hapgood" by Tom Stoppard

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" by Terrence McNally

"Night and Her Stars" by Richard Greenberg

"Night and Her Stars" by Richard Greenberg

"Sunset Boulevard," libretto by Don Black and Christopher Hampton

"A Tuna Christmas" by Joe Sears and Jaston Williams

"The Young Man From Atlanta" by Horton Foote.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q comes from rim26

Question: I enjoyed your play you did with Manchester; will it be going anywhere soon?

Jeffrey Sweet: Yes. It looks as if it will be done next season in Chicago with a much bigger orchestration. We're really looking forward to that. There will also be some changes -- mostly cuts and tiny shifts. But I'm glad you liked it. It was a show we did for love.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Jeffrey Sweet plays have been presented off-B'way, in London, Tokyo, on TV and radio and in dozens of institutional theatres. His works has earned him An American Theatre Critics Association Award, an NEA Fellowship in literature, the Outer Circle Critics Award, a Writers Guild of America Award and an Emmy Nomination. Award and an Emmy Nomination.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This is from Komedy

Question: I'm interested in writing a play and I've started some scenes and monologues, but do you have any advice on how else to get started? Where do your ideas come from?

Jeffrey Sweet: I frequently start with a character who is torn between two compelling choices Most plays are about that central character trying to make a choice Hamlet, of course. Streetcar, etc. Characters don't have just one face. They have different sides that drive them in different and sometimes contradictory directions. So the most exciting theatre is often about a character at war with him or herself. Anyway, when I have a bead on that kind of character, I know I have something that's got some life and dimension. And I know I have a three-dimensional character. The story tends to work itself out as the journey the character has to make in order to find which is his or her true path.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): WJB asks

Question: What's new with Walker Davies and "Ties"? And why don't you update folks on the Miami experience with "Value of Names?"

Jeffrey Sweet: Ah, TIES hasn't been done in years! I'm sorry to say. It was very successful in Chicago but was never given a real production anywhere else. NAMES was fascinating in Miami. The play is about the aftermath of the blacklist And at the end of one of the performances, someone got up in the audience and announced "you think this is just a play, but this happened to me!" And it turned out that the audience was filled with people who had been through the blacklist or had nightmare experiences during the McCarthy era. The MIAMI HERALD ended up writing a feature story about this phenomenon of the show eliciting this passionate and personal response. Very exciting. Incidentally, a radio version of the play was recorded last spring starring Garry Marshall, Hector Elizondo and Sally Murphy. Anybody who's interested in hearing it, should send E-mail to LA Theatre Works at

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q's from Rathcat

Question: This is for you two cast members. I am in high school and I am looking to pursue a career in performing arts. I am currently 16 and would like to know what level you were at in high school? How much theatre experience you had had? Vocal and Acting Training? And, academically, how well were you doing in school?

Jeffrey Sweet: I had the pleasure of going to a terrific high school in Evanston, Illinois. There was a very active theatre department, and I played parts large and small all the way through my years there. The school was also very good about letting my try my hand at writing. I saw four shows produced there. I'm sorry that so many schools are being forced to cut back on arts programs because of cutbacks in funds. I think it's very short-sighted.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): From Fraki

Question: Ayckbourn is soooo under rated!!

Jeffrey Sweet: His best stuff is as good as modern comedy gets. But sometimes he write too fast and lets something be produced before it's ready. NORMAN CONQUESTS is a masterpiece. I think, as I said, SEASON'S GREETINGS is brilliant. But I thought A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL wasn't well thought out. Its central character was so passive as to be almost a black hole on stage. Still, he's certainly racked up an impressive record. I admire his best a lot.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Q from Sandheem

Question: I LOVE SUNSET BOULEVARD. What did you think of Betty Buckley?

Jeffrey Sweet: I didn't see it with Betty Buckley. I saw it with Glenn Close, who was very good. I'll bet that Betty is wonderful. Years ago she used to sing my stuff! she's an old almost-friend.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This Q's from WJBstages

Question: Jeff is there a Chicago-New York-LA balance with new works in the new collection...i.e. how does it break out geographically and is that a consideration?

Jeffrey Sweet: That's not really a consideration. Things are eligible on the basis of being produced in New York. Otherwise, there'd be no way of keeping track of everything around the country. As to where stuff originated well, three of the plays are British, several of the others, though written by writers who make their homes in new York, got started in regional productions. Most new plays begin their lives today in either regional or non-profit productions. But where they come from doesn't have much to do with why they['re chose. In fact, geographic origin has nothing to do with the choices.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This comes from FrankiCa

Question: Going back to my original question, Jeffrey - wouldn't you say it is a thin year? There are no plays of the stature of "Angels" - and many that would not have made the list in other recent years. Is it time to expand to include plays NOT done in NYC?

Jeffrey Sweet: The vast bulk of new stuff tends to thunder in March and April. There's a lot of stuff still waiting to premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons the Public, Circle Rep, Lincoln Center, and various independent venues. I think we'll see a fair amount of interesting stuff before the last bell rings. I'm familiar with a couple of the pieces coming in already, and they are very promising.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): From Komedy

Question: Suggest any plays with exceptionally funny or powerful female monologues?

Jeffrey Sweet: I'll bet people will be doing stuff from THE FOOD CHAIN as soon as it hits print.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): This comes from BramsVan

Question: How do you see Horton Foote's work fitting into the "canon"- I have always felt that he was one of the most powerfully subtle writers, who never seems to get the kudos, respect etc. that he deserves.

Jeffrey Sweet: His subtlety is one of the reasons he's had difficulty being heard. But the sheer body of his work is hard to ignore. I chose THE WIDOW CLAIR a few years back, part of his ORPHANS' HOME cycle. He's the tortoise of American playwrights. Slow and steady. I think Romulus Linney has the potential to be another one.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): We have time for one more question, than we have to say good-bye to Mr. Sweet. This comes from Rathcat

Question: My high school Show Choir is taking a trip to New York in January, Were performing for a famous director, I think his last name is Price, I forgot, and he is giving us all Mock Auditions, I was wondering if you would be interested in talking to a group of High School students from St. Louis, MO, for a half an hour maybe, we have lots of questions.

Jeffrey Sweet: Sure. I'd be delighted. I love teaching. It all depends if I'm in town then. If you or anybody else wants to reach me, I'm at I spend so much time sitting alone at my machine, typing plays or doing business that it's fun to trade letters with people. I get to "hear" the sound of other people's voices. Listening to other people is the only way you get to learn anything anyway. Well, maybe not the ONLY way, but one of the best. So drop me a line.

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): Thank you Mr. Sweet. We had a wonderful time with you. I hope you enjoyed this chat session.

Jeffrey Sweet: I enjoyed it a lot, thanks. And thanks to everybody who joined the party!

Katia Lundy (Playbill On-Line): "The Otis Guernsey/Burns Mantle Theater Yearbook: Best Plays of 1994-1995" is under Limelight Editions. Mr. Sweet is there a # for orders. I think it would make a great Holiday gift!

Jeffrey Sweet: You can either order it through the Drama Book Shop or phone the publisher at 212-532-5525.

Katia Lundy: Thanks a million. Good night one and all.

Copyright 1995 Playbill, Inc.

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