"It's a sad little play," he declared.
And many agreed, and I lived happily ever after.
But his description -- dismissal -- stuck with me.
There are worse things you can call a play than "a sad little play." "A bad little play" is worse, I think. So is "big piece of crap."
Yet there's something in that summary so dispirited, so enervated, so devoid of elation, that it seems to me that any play that can answer to it violates the purpose of theater more thoroughly than gaudily inept stuff, which might, at least, have some energy (in fact, big pieces of crap have provided me with some of my most cherished theatergoing memories).
Anyway, my agent's brutally pithy phrase came back to haunt me last year while I was trying fitfully to write a play. It's not that I was stalled, exactly, or even dissatisfied, at first. In fact, scene by scene I liked what I was coming up with very much. I thought it funny, playful and accurately expressive of my obsessions in their then-current incarnations. But when I tried assembling the scenes, I found the result surprisingly unlively -- dour, downsliding, cheerless: in short, a sad little play.
The problem with writing a play now is that you're writing a play now, and these days it's difficult to be at once mindful and joyous. This certainly was part of my problem. To make matters worse, the play took place in the present, by which I mean the recent past and the near future, so that the charming escape hatch of historicism wasn't available to me. The characters shared our very own predicament and, in varying degrees, they were troubled by a sense of belatedness and a hunch that there was no way out. It made them feel sad. And little.
Well, so what? If the times have led many to feel a shrinking of hope, a widespread doominess, is there really anything wrong with a theatrical response that's similarly shrunken? In other words: Is there something implicitly wrong with a sad little play?
Yes. It's not what you go to the theater for.
The primary event of theater is the usurpation of the audience's time. You go, you're silenced, you're trapped, time passes. The payoff is meant to be that the time you've surrendered is returned to you enhanced. The most devastating tragedy is ennobled by the exhilaration of art. (This is when the thing works, of course.)
But this new play of mine: not happening. I was so embroiled in my character's limited destinies, so absolutely sure there was no way out for them that it had all the exhilaration you get watching a guy trip on his shoelace.
I put it aside.
Now I'm going to tell you about my apartment. This will strike you initially as a structural mishap, but I promise I'm going somewhere with it.
I like my apartment very much. It's a duplex in Manhattan, neither large nor claustral, with an ever-decreasing but still potent view of the Hudson River, and, when the light is soft, from my living room windows New Jersey looks like an Italian hill town.
I've worked hard on this apartment for several years in conjunction with a designer who at this point would have to be counted my most constant companion and the place now so surreally resembles my platonic conception of Apartment that I live daily with the mild disappointment of the achieved. It's a puzzle: Possessing the ideal setting for the life I want to have, why am I not perpetually ecstatic? Oh, right: the life part. Whatever.
In any event, possibly the nicest-looking room in my apartment is my small office, where I write. Along the back wall is an unpartitioned bookcase under the shelves of which are tucked strings of tiny bulbs that, when switched on, create a dramatic backlit effect. My desk, a Frank Gehry design from 1972, is made of corrugated cardboard; it was remarkably inexpensive for something designed by Gehry as well as fantastically costly for something made of corrugated cardboard. There's a desk chair that swivels unsteadily because of a broken caster and is upholstered in what looks like business suit material. There are beautiful twin vintage lamps that came from a thrift store and a honey-colored credenza of the same era.
Because it's my workroom, posters and photographs from my plays hang on the walls but are confined to the side and inward-facing rump walls only, as if to indicate modesty. As I said, it's the room where I write, and it's a beautiful room to look at and a calming room to search for a book in and, as the only room in the house that doesn't get decent light, a perfectly lousy room to write in.