ONE year when I was feeling competitive, my agent went to a preview of what I thought would be a major rival. He called from the car.
"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.
Proust, famously, composed "In Search of Lost Time" in a cork-lined study, and I know a playwright who works brilliantly in a sort of sealed capsule painted the color of Gulden's mustard. But I can't do it any longer. I tried for three years, I managed, but I'm done. Even though I am known to one and all to be furled, humorless and indwelling, I am also profoundly heliotropic. I may not want to disport myself in the sun but I like having it around.
The (sad little) play had sat in the drawer for months when I decided: I was going to finish it. But first I had to alter my arrangement.
One night (midnight, for some reason, and with violent resolve), I swapped out the sitting room and the office. The look was horribly ugly and sent me into an instant depression, but I knew it was right.
The next day, I resumed the play. It would be absurd to say that everything changed with the switch of venue, that a process I'd found crabbed and timid became suddenly flowing and exuberant, but that's what happened.
There was sunlight everywhere, and with it came a flock of useful provisional illusions: Things weren't so bad, after all; the weather of my youth still obtained. World peace was imminent.
This didn't alter the meaning of the play, didn't jolly it up, but it did give my characters a jolt of volition -- they were no longer consumed by their own endings; they were more intricate and mercurial than that. The most fretful among them found himself striving furiously to become happy, as people do -- after all, even the darkest course of alleviation, even suicide, is driven by some small hope that things will get better.
What my new, sunstruck mental spaciousness gave me was the ability to hear my characters' potential to act -- I was filled with a happy why-not-ness. A character who'd churned with latent homicidal feelings now cast off my bourgeois constraints and pursued a quasi-homicidal plan. Another who died three-quarters of the way through came back for an encore because I missed her. I've always had rather a heterodoxical ambition for theater with the result that upon completing any given play, my main feeling is sadness that it's not some other kind of play. Often, I like angular, highly formal structure where the incongruities are sharply etched. I'd written one of those recently, so this time I wanted the opposite -- a comedy of digressions, as loopy gossip, but somehow not chaotic, a play that proceeded by parentheses, the kind that, whatever the length, couldn't possibly have an intermission.
Observations become lessons
THERE'S a play that I've neither read nor seen but that has my favorite title of any play I know: "Who They Are and How It Is With Them." I decided I wanted this play to answer the promise of that title and pretty much refuse all other strictures. This delighted me but still, vaguely, I looked for supports.
A play I happened to read shortly before starting and a movie I happened to see as I was entering the final stretches, in their opposite ways, provided them.
The play had been written by a ferociously talented young writer whose gift was evident in virtually every line of dialogue and nearly absent in the story as a whole. It was one of those plays where Nothing Is as It Seems to Be. Double-crosses abounded. Victims turned out to be victimizers, losers winners. You catch my drift. The thing smelled of the workshop. You could practically hear the tableloads of young, cliché-battened playwrights screaming, "Stakes! Stakes!" I found myself pacing my apartment, launching private jeremiads against a system of theater education that could so thoroughly and systematically squelch such a promising talent, and determined to do something about it -- later, when I got a minute.
The movie I saw -- accidentally, flipping channels when I should have been working -- was Luis Buñuel's blissful masterpiece "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." With its elegant architecture of nesting dreams, its radical rage disguised as high comedy, its beautifully enigmatic indeterminacy, and most of all its perfect freshness 35 years after its release, it represented everything I was, at that moment, aspiring to. The play I was working on had nothing in common with this very great film, yet I know the film changed it at a crucial moment; it reminded me how delightful freedom is, and it made me eager.
As they move along in their careers, writers nurse obsessions, develop themes whether they mean to or not, and grow increasingly conscious of their materials and how to work them.
But if I hadn't happened to read the play that shortchanged a gifted young writer's talent and seen the movie that crystallized an aging genius' vision, my play would have been different from what it is.
And if I hadn't moved my desk seven feet, I would never have written it at all.
Greenberg won the 2003 Tony Award for "Take Me Out." His other plays include "Three Days of Rain," "The Violet Hour "and "The Dazzle."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times