As someone who enjoys a game of poker, Aaron Sorkin recently described himself as the kind of player who thinks he’s good but who always ends up losing money.
“This is for two reasons,” explained the 30-year-old playwright. “One, I’m not a good poker player. And two, I never fold when I should. If you fold, you just have to sit there and watch. And playing the game is too much fun, so I’m in, even if it costs me.”
Sorkin can afford it. Eight years ago, when he was a New York actor touring the South in children’s theater, he sat in front of a typewriter and began to write a play about just such a poker game in a motel room in Jasper, Ala. The writing, he recalls, was so bad that he probably should have, well, folded. But six years later, Sorkin came up with a winning hand.
His older sister, a naval lawyer, told him about a 1986 incident at the U.S. Marine base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when an informal disciplinary action had gotten out of hand, resulting in the death of a young soldier. Sorkin immediately recognized the possibilities of a courtroom drama based on the event. In November, 1989, his play, “A Few Good Men,” about two naval lawyers defending two Marines accused of murdering a fellow corpsman, began a 14-month run on Broadway.
Even though the New York Times critic had given the play a thumbs-down, word-of-mouth built steadily, and the producers’ investment of an additional $300,000 to keep the show running paid off. Sorkin found himself hailed in the press as a 28-year-old Wunderkind. The young man who just a year prior had been dressing up as a moose in malls (to promote a hunting show) was now a playwright whose drama had a distinctly populist appeal. The story got better when, nine months into the run, the playwright wooed and won his attractive leading lady, Megan Gallagher. And even better when it was announced that Sorkin would adapt his play for a screen version to be directed by Rob Reiner and to star Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. (The film is now scheduled for release later this year.)
The play, which garnered Sorkin the 1990 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding American Playwright, opens tonight at the Wilshire Theatre, starring Michael O’Keefe, Alyson Reed and Paul Winfield.
Last week, lunching at a favorite theatrical hangout, the handsome New Yorker tried not to look too smug as he reiterated his itinerary for the coming week. “I fly to Los Angeles on Saturday,” he said, chomping into a pastrami sandwich and rapidly downing the first of three diet sodas. “I see Rob’s first cut of the movie on Monday, attend the opening of the play on Tuesday, and then, the next day, I go up to Sacramento where a friend, Timothy Busfield, is directing the first play I ever wrote, ‘Hidden in This Picture,’ at his theater there. It’s Aaron Sorkin month in California.”
Yeah, OK. But isn’t there some dark cloud on the horizon to assuage the green-with-envy set? Some little burr to slow the confident strut of this talented overachiever born to a Scarsdale, N.Y., attorney and his wife, a schoolteacher?
Almost as if he can read the question before it’s popped--somewhat more delicately--Sorkin added, “It’s peculiar, but I’ve been told by friends and family that I don’t seem to be enjoying what’s happening as much as I should. But I do. I love it. I can feast on it. I’m spoiled by it. But when you’re catapulted into the limelight, there are things expected of you, demands made of you and you have to be up for that.”
For starters, Sorkin said that he was concerned about the consistency of the touring production, which has been on the road for four months. He is also nervous about the reception for the upcoming film. But even more paralyzing is the writer’s block that can ensue when faced with the public’s anticipation of The Next Play after the big success. Looming is the nightmarish specter of the “Playwrote"--the term that playwright Jerome Lawrence (“Inherit the Wind”) once coined to describe those footnotes in theatrical annals who never managed to duplicate what eventually became their sole hit.
“Sure, there’s pressure,” said Sorkin, “but I’m flattered by it. I’m terrified that I’m going to have the shortest career in history, but I’ve always put pressure on myself, even when I was writing plays on cocktail napkins at a bar. The difference now is that there are very creative and talented people who are putting on the pressure, and if I can continue to work with them, then it’s a great way to live.”
Sorkin said he worked with Reiner on the screenplay of “A Few Good Men” for about eight months, sharpening scenes and revising key plot points to heighten the stakes between the dueling legal teams. While he was somewhat in awe of the high-powered cast, he said that he didn’t have much truck with the actors. He recalled, “When I first got to Hollywood, a screenwriter once told me that a writer on the set of a film is like a whore who’s been used, paid and is waiting around for breakfast. It’s true.”
Sorkin describes Hollywood as “a surreal experience.” For one, his fiancee lives there and the couple have struck a bi-coastal compromise until their marriage. Then they’ll decide who’s going to be the one to move. “Who do you think it’s going to be?” he asks puckishly. “I think we’ll find a place in Kansas.”
While he doesn’t have a “Woody Allen phobia” toward Los Angeles, he finds the movie world somewhat intimidating. “Megan and I aren’t part of the scene,” he said. “But don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely the sort of person who would love to go to those parties. I find the money and level of attention very seductive. I’m materialistic and I’d love to drive a Porsche. I’m not down to earth at all. I’m just very nervous out there. I feel that I’m wearing a sign that says, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m new out here.’ ”
Sorkin, who describes himself as a “Mario Cuomo Democrat,” has been commissioned by Reiner to write a film, to be set in Washington, about a congressional campaign, and he is presently shopping around for one to glom onto for research. He is also writing a new play about the Apollo Project and the American moon quest. When asked about the themes of the two projects, he responded, “I don’t know. My themes come to me in the middle of the work itself. Ask me then.”
Though Sorkin admitted that he underwent a “mini-crisis” when he turned 30 last June--"As much as I didn’t like the publicity surrounding the 28-year-old Aaron, it was fun to be a kid in an older person’s business"--he said that he looks forward to a long and varied career as a playwright and screenwriter.
“I certainly don’t think of myself as one-shot playwright,” he said. “If you look at the baseball Hall-of-Famers, the best players in the world are the guys who batted .300. That means that two out of every three times at bat, they failed. And if you look at the great playwrights--Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Mamet--these guys wrote bad plays more often than good. I suppose I’m going to write more bad plays too, but hopefully I’ll write some good ones.”