Playwright Lanford Wilson, author of Burn This, Balm in Gilead and The Hot L Baltimore, is perhaps best known for his cycle of plays revolving around the Talley family of Lebanon, MO — his former stomping grounds. The cycle includes Fifth of July, Talley & Son and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly. The latter is scheduled to be staged in the current all-Wilson season of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre. The Southern writer spoke frankly with Playbill On-Line's Ernio Hernandez about the upcoming season, pregnant actresses, John Malkovich and his love for the work of Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams and David Auburn.
Playbill On-Line: So, James Houghton, the founding artistic director of the Signature Theatre, tells you they want to dedicate an entire season to your work, what was your first reaction?
Lanford Wilson: He tells me — although I didn't remember saying it — the first thing I said was, "Well, it's about damn time." He was telling people that yesterday and I don't remember it, but if he says I said it, I probably did. I was sure I felt it.
PBOL: Did they just tell you which plays they wanted, or did you get some say in the matter?
LW: We sort of worked it out together. I knew I wanted to do Book of Days — which is a relatively new play that didn't come to New York. We did it at Hartford [Stage Company in Connecticut] hoping it would come to New York and it didn't quite. So, we'll finally get to see it in New York. The two new plays were written for the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI. Jim Houghton was in Chelsea and saw Rain Dance and he wanted to do that — which is excellent — and possibly do the Purple Rose production with maybe one or two changes. I don't know, we'll see. That's a long time off yet. And then, he wanted to do Talley's Folly and I guess we're going to do it. We wanted to use Cynthia Nixon. She and Mark Nelson read it for us and she was just phenomenal and now, of course, she can't do it because she's pregnant. So, if we don't find someone as good as Cynthia, then we may end up doing Fifth of July. But probably, it'll be Talley's Folly. But we don't know who's going to be in it. We know the guy, but not the gal.
PBOL: The character Pale in the play Burn This, which Signature is currently offering in revival at the Union Square Theatre, was that originally written for the actor who played it on Broadway, John Malkovich?
LW: The second half was. I wrote the first half and I decided that I was writing something for Malkovich, so the second half was. But, I already had the character in the story.
PBOL: Was the female lead written for Joan Allen — who won the Tony Award for her performance?
LW: No, I wrote that for Nancy Snyder [who starred in Wilson's Angels Fall] who took me out to lunch after the first read-through — which was brilliant; she was incredible, it was four hours long at that time — and told me that she was pregnant and was going to have a family and was not going to work in the theatre anymore. She is back! She's back now, some 18 years later, she's in Book of Days. She's such a wonderful actress. PBOL: Living up to the performances of the original cast must be quite a task, how do you feel about the new cast of Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Ty Burrell and Dallas Roberts and the production itself?
LW: I love 'em! I just love them, I just think they're splendid. It's got a softer feel to it, a more tender feel to it, than the first production. When people ask me, "So what happens after that?," on the first production, I said, "I don't have a clue." That curtain comes down and I don't know the next word or next movement or anything. But with this production, I have a feeling that there's hope for them. I think they're going to work on it very carefully. So, there's real hope there.
PBOL: In Burn This, the screenwriter (Burton) hands over a finished script to the advertising exec (Larry) and says "You're in it." Do you incorporate people in your life into your plays? Are you "in it" yourself?
LW: I can't avoid having me in there. [Laughs.] I said to someone — and this is only partly true — that Pale is an amalgam of a couple of bartenders and restaurant managers that I've met. And the other three characters are me. But, that's only partly true. But, Pale is based on a couple of restaurateurs that I know, very volatile people, as you can imagine. And, Burton, at least the side of him that goes on and on and on about his work, is a sort of satire of myself. And then other parts of him are based on screenwriters that I've known and so on and so forth. Larry is... Larry is largely me. Anna is based on one of my roommates in Chicago. Five of us got this house and lived in it for two months — this incredible apartment, just an amazing apartment — and didn't pay a cent in rent for two months and moved out because we were afraid the Mafia owned the building. But, we sure had fun when we were there for the two months. So, she was one of the roommates there.
PBOL: How do you think audiences will react to a three-hour intimate drama?
LW: They've been reacting very nicely. I didn't know. I didn't have a clue, but I think it's physically so beautiful and the acting is so good that they're responding pretty darn well to it. A girl that went last night said that it doesn't feel like three hours, it goes right past you. I can't tell of course. The first time I saw it all the way through, I had no idea it was that long. I was shocked and a little appalled too.
PBOL: Did you get the sense it was that long when writing it?
LW: Well, when I wrote it, it was four hours long and the whole process of rehearsal was cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting and finally getting it down to where it is now. The producer on Broadway wanted to take another 10 minutes out of it and I said, "I really can't do it. If Malkovich has anything that he wants to lose, then ask him." And he ran to Malkovich, unfortunately, with the whole cast there and asked him. [Malkovich] said, "I will make one change then I don't want to ever hear about this again, okay?" — because we had been cutting him right and left — and [the producer] said, "Yeah, yeah, what, what?" And [Malkovich] said, "I'll go back to the four hour version, it was better anyway."
PBOL: The Signature production of Book of Days will be directed by your long-time collaborator Marshall Mason. Are you two sick of each other yet?
LW: Oh no, no. We get along really well. It's like he directs the way I would direct if I had any talent directing. I mean, you find someone that really understands your work and why change?
PBOL: You've written a number of plays — Talley's Folly, Talley & Son, Fifth of July — centering on the Talley family. Any possibility of another?
LW: Yeah, well, I think from time to time about another one. I was going to write another one with Whistler, the guy who built the Folly. And I don't think I will.
PBOL: Rain Dance is one of your most recent works, what is the focus of it?
LW: Rain Dance takes place in the '40s on the night of the Trinity Test on the atom bomb. We're in Los Alamos in the cantina and it's getting on toward midnight and there are four people who — you get the feeling — hang out there all the time. There's a young scientist and the older scientist he works with. The older scientist's wife, who is a draftsman, and an American Indian who is an MP who was born not 10 miles from the reservation. The young scientist is having a crisis of conscious and the other three are trying to keep him from having a nervous breakdown. [Laughs.] They're all just about to leave because their work is finished or may be finished if the thing works.
PBOL: Where the idea for the play come from?
LW: I've been reading about the making of that bomb forever, and anything about atomic energy. There's a lot of it in my plays already. I wrote a play some years ago — like say 10 — that was about a woman who lived there, on the property, had her house there. And it was the only place where the scientists could go for lunch and dinner, she had a little restaurant. And I couldn't let anyone see it because it was based on a real person and there's a book about her and I didn't have the rights to the book. But the play has been haunting me, and so this is a rewrite — without her — of that earlier play, which was called Trinity.
PBOL: Speaking of rewrites, have you touched up any of the works for their Signature productions?
LW: There are about 10 words changed in Burn This. We changed the prices of things and that's about it.
PBOL: What is your writing process like?
LW: Well, I haven't written a word since Sept. 8 . I finished a translation of Ghosts and I haven't written a word, so I'll try to remember what my process used to be!
PBOL: That's my follow-up question, "Are you working on anything now?"
LW: No, that's answered: "Not a thing." Well, I used to run around annoying everyone saying "I don't have a thing to say, I don't have a thing to write, I have no idea for a play" and either I'd remember I'd had an idea earlier — which happened a lot — or I'd say, "Well, there is this one thing..." and start with a character — sometimes a situation, but almost always a character. And, that [character] would blither on for a while and someone would finally say "Shut up" and you have two points of view. And when I really got to working on it — if I really got into it — I would start about 45 minutes to an hour after I got up, whichever hour that might be...
PBOL: Depending on the night before...
LW: Yeah, depending on the night before, and [then] work for from three to six hours. Usually, around four hours, I ran out of gas and didn't have a clue what was coming next. Then, I would reread that the next day and go on. Reread it, even if it was an act and a half long.
PBOL: Who would you say are your influences?
LW: I think the biggest one, oddly enough, is [Charles] Dickens. He just keeps pushing me because his characters are so far out that he's always a "nudge" to say "Don't be so damn suburban." And of course, Tennessee Williams. I was in plays by Tennessee; I was in The Glass Menagerie when I was in high school and you can't say those words without them penetrating you somewhere. And, one of the really early ones, before I'd written a play, I saw Brendan Behan's The Hostage. Stepping out of character and stepping out of the play and addressing the audience, hadn't even crossed my mind until I saw that play. The Hostage opens with this jig dance and they all finish and the audience applauds and the guy says "Thank God that's over with." And I just jumped out of my seat. And also, that first year I was in New York, I worked at a theatre and they did [James Saunders'] Next Time I'll Sing To You. That was a large influence because at the top of the second act, there's this huge long shaggy dog story with a very funny punchline and that was a big influence. I started the second act of Balm in Gilead with a huge long story because I thought that's the way plays were made.
PBOL: Have you seen or read any new plays that have moved you?
LW: I am a mad fan of the [David Auburn] play Proof. I really loved it. I was very very pleased with that play. And if I could write a musical, I'd do Urinetown, but I can't. Oh, I loved it. What a hoot!
PBOL: Any parting advice for young playwrights?
LW: No, just get them on. The important thing is to get someone to read it to you and try to get the damn thing on.
— by Ernio Hernandez