Playwright John Patrick Shanley, who lives in Brooklyn overlooking the East River, spoke over the phone from this aerie, frequently breaking into a raspy, rust-encrusted laugh that sounded like an old Chrysler PT Cruiser incapable of turning over on a morning when the river freezes.
Shanley's fleet of plays and film scripts over the past 33 years is too large and varied to enumerate or summarize; critics have rated some as Ferraris and others as PTs. "Moonstruck" won him the 1988 Oscar for original screenplay, and in 2005 "Doubt" won a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize as the year's best play. Shanley's big flops were the 1990 film "Joe Versus the Volcano," which he wrote and directed, and his 2008 stage musical "Romantic Poetry," which suffered perhaps the worst reviews a major American playwright has endured in the 21st century.
Shanley, 65 and unstoppable, is preparing to direct the February off-Broadway premiere of his drama "Prodigal Son," about his teenage days at a tiny boarding school in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, audiences at the Geffen Playhouse are about to get their first look at "Outside Mullingar," the first Shanley play set in his ancestral Ireland.
You decided early in your career not to be typed as an Irish American playwright, so you avoided topics such as your own home life with an Irish-immigrant father and uncles. Why forgo that when you were just emerging, especially when Irish material has such proven appeal?
I got out of the Marine Corps when I was 22. I knew some people who were prominent in the Irish American community, and I was introduced as an Irish American poet, and there was support for that. And I viscerally knew that's not what I'm going to do. I don't want to be in that niche, I don't want to be limited in what I write by being Irish American. If you write too directly about your own life when you're young, you miss the boat somehow.
But don't young writers have to go with what they know?
I did. I grew up in an Italian and Irish neighborhood in the Bronx and spent lots of time with friends who were Italian American and was exposed to their family life. It was abundant in things we didn't have in my house. The talk was great in my house, but the food wasn't too good. Their food was better, their clothes were more interesting, they owned their sexuality more and weren't as repressed as the Irish. It was liberating to write about them (including "Moonstruck").
You eventually did write about your own family — and now in "Outside Mullingar" you've written a story based on your relatives in Ireland.
I was marinated in the Irish thing, and I always knew I would write about it. These things had to mature in me. Then I had an amazing experience [in 1993] when my father was in his late 80s and he didn't trust himself to drive, so he invited me to go and drive him around and see the family and the farm he was born on. When I sat in the kitchen with them, I realized a level of comfort and familiarity I hadn't had in my own childhood. 'This is who I am, these people are just like me.' I had experienced a recognition, and it was the first time that certain things about me made sense. Including my sense of humor, which is oblique and never goes that far away from mortality and has a certain unexpected savagery at times.
So you kept going back and gradually picked up elements that are in the show — the seemingly thwarted romance between neighboring, never-married farmers and a land dispute between their families.
One year I was walking with my cousin Anthony, who runs the farm. I said, "Who else lives on this road?" We knocked, and a very beautiful, very animated woman answered and looked at Anthony, who has never married, like she was electrified. I said later, "That woman likes you," and he looked at me very cagey: "Do you think so?"
Will the true test of "Outside Mullingar" be how it's received when it's done in Ireland?
It hasn't been, and I don't know that that would be the true test. The Irish, especially the urban Irish, are incredibly difficult to their own, as Frank McCourt of "Angela's Ashes" could testify, he was a friend of mine. They go after their own like they go after nobody else. God only knows the reason.
There's a magical element in the play, and we've been conditioned to think of Ireland as a place where magic can happen. Could this story work in an American setting?
Absolutely. We have just as much magic as they have in Ireland. But what we don't have is people who talk this way, who have the gift of language. Very often when I write plays it's hard work and feels awful, but this play was the most fun of anything I've ever done. They can say everything. I don't have to hold back and edit it down.
What was it like to have a success like "Moonstruck," then suffer rejection when "Joe Versus the Volcano" didn't meet expectations that came with its stars, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?
I felt absolutely awful. It took me a couple of years before I wasn't feeling a decent amount of pain from it. But I got over it by doing what I always do. I sat down and said, "I'll write a play."
And then that roller coaster repeated many years later with "Doubt" followed by "Romantic Poetry."
It definitely helps in every area of your life when you're older. You go, "I've been through this before, and it's not the end of the world, it's just the next page in the story." In addition to the ones that are going to be popular I'm very experimental, like, "Well, let's try a musical, let's be silly."
You also wrote the libretto of an opera version of "Doubt" that Minnesota Opera premiered in 2013. After all this time, is there any kind of writing for performance that would be new to you?
Right now I'm doing a miniseries for HBO based on a nonfiction book, "Factory Man," about a furniture dynasty in Virginia in a trade war with China. That's new, I've never done a miniseries, and it's working in a different way than I ever have before. This last year I've been busier than any other time in my career, so it's cool.