When Craig Lucas and Norman Rene get together, good things happen. Since the New York-based pair began collaborating in 1979, Rene has directed Lucas' "Missing Persons," "Reckless," "Three Postcards" and the multiple award-winner "Blue Window." Now comes "Prelude to a Kiss," opening Friday at South Coast Repertory.
"It's about two people who fall in love and get married very quickly, and something magical happens," said Lucas. "It's sort of a modern fairy tale. But (unlike earlier plays), it's more plot-oriented; it moves linearly, from beginning to end. I also wanted to try something different with language. In 'Blue Window' (at SCR and the New Mayfair, 1985-'86) and 'Three Postcards' (SCR, 1987), I was going for a verisimilitude of spoken American English--which doesn't allow for a great deal of eloquence. There are very few people in the United States who can say what they mean. I wanted to have central characters who could pack their sentence with a nuance."
And with realism. In fact, Lucas' female characters are so truthful and sensitively realized, one wonders how they could come from the minds of two men.
"A woman plays the part," Rene, 37, said bluntly. "I don't have the experience of a 70-year-old, nor is my knowledge of being 13 as accurate as an 18-year-old's. I barely remember 10th grade. That's why you hire someone: because they have a point of view. They're going to help you understand it. Craig writes it, I direct it and they perform it."
"All art is the act of imagining," stressed Lucas, 36, who grew up outside Philadelphia and attended Boston University. "I think it's a canard, a way of saying 'them' and 'us.' Gay people do it all the time: 'Straight people don't understand us.' It's a kind of paranoia. No, I'll never be a woman, and there are obvious differences--biological, hormonal and societal--but we're all capable of imagining the other person's point of view. It's the John Simons and Ronald Reagans of the world who fan the flames of 'them' and 'us.' We are all human."
Ironically, the play Lucas had intended to write instead of "Prelude" was about a serial killer.
"I started working on it and didn't have anything to say," he said. "I decided it was the sensational nature of it that first seemed attractive. Also, I'd heard of about five other people who were writing plays about serial killers."
He laughed. "I wanted to do something stark and disturbing, and that was a good way of being stark and disturbing. But in a way, I also didn't want to put that out into the world. I didn't want to create something that was going to make people feel any more frightened about being alive."
Indeed, one of the most consistent aspects of Lucas' work is its life-affirming, embracing quality.
"I think Craig's importance as a writer is that he has a very particular voice, a strong attitude towards people and a strong attitude towards living. I feel very fortunate that I get to interpret his work and say what I want to say through it," said the Rhode Island-born Rene who went to Carnegie Mellon (and, with Lucas, also created "Marry Me a Little," a montage of unaffiliated Stephen Sondheim songs being revived Jan. 29 on SCR's Second Stage).
"In a lot of ways I have to know more about the play than Craig does, because I need a point of view to interpret it," he said. "When we started working together, we clearly defined roles--which I think has been our saving grace. I have total respect for Craig's script, and that's what I interpret. Then an actor is entrusted with the interpretation of that particular role. It's being clear about who's doing what. If you're unhappy with someone, you fire 'em. If you're working with them, you trust 'em."
"The danger is that we like each other so much that sometimes it's harder to say, 'This is what I want,' " Lucas added. "Norman's better about that. He'll be quite vehement when he thinks something's wrong with the script. It's not, 'You might think about. . . .' He's like a dog with a bone when he knows it can be better. A lot of people want to stop working at five o'clock. What I value about Norman is that he'll call: 'Hi, I know it's 11:30 and you're asleep, but. . . .' Actually, it's as fun to sit in a bar and talk about the play-- sometimes --as it is to watch a Mets game or go to a movie. And we have a lot of mutual friends, so we don't always talk about the work."
Spoken about or not, the writing is rarely out of Lucas' thoughts.
"As an artist, most of the time you're working, you're daydreaming," he said. "The trick is to get out of the way of your subconscious brain. Then there's the craft part of it. I like to work, but work means work , and there's a lot of days when you sit in front of that computer screen and think, 'Why would anybody do this to themselves--sit alone in a room, making up voices?' When it happens, I usually try to push through, unless I start to do damage to the good stuff. Then it's time to quit."
The writing dynamic, he added, changes with each work: "When I was putting together 'Blue Window,' there was a dialectic. (Each character's words) would inform the others'. Sometimes I'd write an entire scene, then lay it down next to the other and cut things, make it fit. All the elements you're supposed to be conscious of--contrast, characterization, conflict, music, rhythm--well, I don't know how other people work but I say, 'Is this pleasing to me?' I sit in the imaginary theater of my brain thinking, 'Am I bored? Am I getting chills? Do I care about him or her?' "
The connection is often personal. "I don't intend to be autobiographical, but neither do I have any intention of disguising my personality, my needs or wishes. I take the Nabokovian point of view--rather than the Joycean--that a work of art is self-containing. Of course, the only litmus test is performance, because plays are meant to be read; they're living things. That's why it's art and not science."
The actors, Lucas adds, bring it to life. "It's always so much more, so much better. They give you something that's not the thing you thought they were going to do. I like actors. For me, they're what theater is about. I love writers, I love directors, I love designers. But this is their art." (Lucas' background includes nine years of piano study plus performing in Broadway choruses--"in an earlier life," he joked. "I rarely kick these days.")
What gets Lucas' creative juices flowing? "In 'Three Postcards,' it was the idea of not looking at big moments, but (at) the little corners--reflecting a life that way. And 'Blue Window' came out of a completely technical interest Norman had in behavior, removed from the urgent constraints usually seen in plays: divorce, natural disaster, death. Norman said, 'Let's just watch people behave in banal circumstances.' I snuck a plot in there, but it's buried. We're going through similar concerns now. We've tried some things in this play that have not, to our knowledge, ever been done before."
Scary? Both men nod.
"Norman will confirm that all I really think about is, 'Will they like me? ' We kind of look at one another day-to-day and say, 'Am I the crazy one or are you?' " Lucas sighed. "You never know. It's always a risk. Right before 'Blue Window' opened, we thought, 'Let's take out all the overlapping dialogue. Nobody's going to be able to follow this. Seven people talking at the same time--that's horrible . It's mean. The party goes on forever and nothing happens. Everyone will hate it.' That's when you have to say, 'Hey, it seemed interesting in the light of day. Go with it.' "
"You learn a lot when you have the first audience," Rene noted. "You don't really know what the animal is till you have that. They tell you so much about what you're doing."
Added Lucas: "If people laugh, they got it; if they pay attention, they got it. If they get antsy, they're telling you something. Why would you be so idiotic to say, 'To hell with you. I know this is better'? Yes, you're serving yourself and your own taste. But the ultimate goal is to communicate with all those people."
As for the expectations that follow each new work, "There's nothing I can do about it," Lucas said calmly. "In some ways, I feel pressure--but in other ways, no. Because I feel validated. Seven years ago, I had never finished a play. I didn't know if I could finish one, I didn't know if someone would produce it. Now all of that has come true." And his goals are higher . "I want people to have a thrilling time. Absolutely. I want them to go home and remember it.
"I want it to be indelible. "