Last month, Blue Ridge Press published playwright Richard Greenberg’s first book, a singularly eccentric view of what could well be his life and times called Rules for Others to Live By: comments and self-contradictions. (Notice how the word “autobiography” doesn’t leap to the page.)
Next month, his 32nd play opens at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. The Babylon Line stars Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Reaser, Julie Halston, Randy Graff, Frank Wood, Maddie Corman, and Michael Oberholtzer and begins previews November 10 and will bow officially December 5.
Your book is hard to describe. It’s sort of a pretend memoir. Right off, on the first page—“Apology to Oprah,” you call it—you qualify the hell out of what’s coming, so the reader never really knows what’s real and what’s not.
Richard Greenberg: I know. I did that on purpose. Being personal is difficult for me. I need to feel the freedom because of that distance. Keeping the reader guessing allows me to be really revealing in places.
How do you want the reader to come at this book?
RG: As if it were a collection of essays that were written over years and just happen to interweave at times.
HH: How long did it actually take you to write it?
RG: Eighteen months. Other things happened during that time, and I did work on other projects, but mostly I was uninterrupted for 18 months. There wasn’t a week away from it.
You’re very good about opening lines. It’s like you come down from on high and jump-start a chapter with something outrageous.
RG: I do?
HH: Like the introduction to your “obligatory” recipe. It only has two ingredients, but I’m not even sure what kind of dish is because the meticulous preparation of it is so fraught with anxiety.
RG: Anxiety takes over everything, I find—pretty much, more or less. It’s my baseline, I suppose.
Your book also has—what must be—the first critique ever of a suicide note.
RG: That was a time when I had emotions, too. I was young, and emotions were easy then. It was an incredibly hard and draining day—that day we all went to the funeral. Twenty-three of us were taken aside and handed a note from the deceased.
When I read the suicide note she left me in the middle of all this, it did seem a little yearbook-y. I thought, “Oh, I thought I’d get a little something better than this.” It’s not that the emotion wasn’t real. It’s just that the critic [in me] didn’t go away.
Will you ever reveal who’s who in your book?
RG: No. I won’t. Some of the people whose actual first names are used are pretty transparent. Everyone knows who Patti [Clarkson] is. Everyone knows who Jill [Claybough] is.
I would have thought you’d have a comparable feeling for Judith Light and put her in the book. She brought considerable distinction—and a Tony-winning performance—to your Tony-nominated play, The Assembled Parties.
RG: Although I say I stay inside a lot, there are many more people who are not in the book than are in the book. Maybe, they’ll be in the sequel. NO! I don’t feel that I have to avail myself of everyone I know just for material.
Judith is great. She’s kind of a saint, but that doesn’t seem to cost her. She’s another one of those supremely nice people. It’s wonderful to run into them, and you do find them in the theatre, which is fun, and you do find them among actors. There are a number of actors who are just incredibly nice, and that makes as much sense as the opposite stereotype.
What prompted you to write The Assembled Parties?
RG: The way the idea of that play came to me was very circuitous. The influences are odd. I had actually written a play years before that hadn’t quite worked. I thought, “There’s stuff in here I want to use.” That play was aiming at tragedy the first time, and I decided it was a comedy. At the time, I was reading lots of Eduardo De Filippo, who was the reigning Italian playwright. I loved how ample those plays were, and I thought, “I want something that has a texture like this, something that has been this lived-in quality.” Also, I’ve always liked getting a whole lifetime into two hours.
You certainly helped Judith take every scene she was in.
RG: I actually wrote that part for Judith, but I didn’t know she was going to take it.
Do you often write plays with specific actors in mind?
RG: I do. Sometimes, it turns out they’d be all wrong for the roles. Sometimes, you write out of misremembering an actor, so you can come up with something that’s very subtly wrong for the actor you had in mind.
This book made me realize how you, as a playwright, must completely assume the roles of characters when you are writing them.
RG: You do have to do that. It’s fun. The weird thing about it is that I’ve always been a ventriloquist as a playwright. That’s what you are. You say, “OK, who am I going to be today?” I’m always writing as a bunch of other people. I’m not used to writing as myself. That’s harder.
Your play, The Violet Hour, took place in 1919 when people talked quite differently than they do now. Was that difficult for you?
RG: No, because that’s what I love. Obviously, I’d read Fitzgerald and so much of the times, and you just imitate.
When I was first considering adapting Pal Joey, I thought, “Can I do it?” so I wrote some test scenes for myself. In one of them, somebody referred to Crab Louie, and, until I wrote that, I didn’t know I knew Crab Louie. I thought, “That sounds authentically period to me. If I have that and it just comes out without any research, then I’m good to go.”
Your latest play is The Babylon Line. Why that title?
RG: For years after I moved to New York, I was getting on the Babylon line to go home to my parents—just outside Levittown. That’s what the main character, played by Josh Radnor, does. He’s a reluctant teacher who takes the Babylon line from Penn Station to Levittown during the fall and winter of ’67 to teach creative writing to a class of adults. There are these three women in it who all happen to know each other. Terry Kinney, our director, calls them “the furies.”
What have you been writing recently, now that Babylon Line will be onstage?
RG: I’ve drafted another play. It’s called Morsel of Sleep. My friend, Kate Arrington, who was the daughter in Our Mother’s Brief Affair, once called me at a perfectly reasonable hour of the morning, but I’m an insomniac and had only been asleep about an hour-and-a-half. I let her know that, because I’m nice, and she was not phased by it—she’s not phased by much—and said, “I’m so sorry. I would never deliberately interrupt your morsel of sleep.” I said, “OK. That’s going to be a title.” And so it is. The play’s about people who can’t sleep. I feel I know a lot about that.
Any plan for another book any time soon?
RG: There are no plans. Do you know what you are going to do next? No. Whoever knows? It would be lovely if there were enough money to support this never-knowing. Then, it would be the perfect life. If you’re rich and never knew what you’re going to do next, that would be great, but when you’re not . . . .