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The Lighter Side of Michael Cristofer : Stage: The playwright’s latest, opening tonight at the Old Globe, is about breaking up. But in an upbeat kind of way.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Cristofer’s first big hit, “The Shadow Box,” which won a Pulitzer and a Tony 15 years ago, was a play about death and dying.

His latest production, “Breaking Up,” which opens at the Old Globe Theatre’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage today, contains 12 scenes about a couple breaking up.

In the intervening years, Cristofer has dramatized a fact-based story about the lynching of a Nazi war criminal, in “Black Angel,” and written about a lonely woman ruminating over men, in “The Lady and the Clarinet.”

Not exactly cheery stuff, as he is the first to admit.

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“I guess I have feelings about these things I keep needing to deal with,” Cristofer said by phone from his home in Woodstock, N.Y.

“I constantly am attracted to stories about redemption and true forgiveness. These things come to haunt me.”

Cristofer, 47, who was born Michael Procaccino, said his upbringing helped determine his subject matter.

“I was raised as a Catholic, as an Italian Catholic. There are things ingrained in me that I can’t get rid of,” he said. “There is an abiding respect for human life and a sense that everyone can be redeemed. And I guess I write these stories to see how far that idea will go before it collapses.”

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For some, it collapsed with “Black Angel,” in which he raised the question of whether the lynching of the ex-Nazi was the right thing to do.

“I was called a Nazi,” he said. “My life was threatened.”

But for Cristofer, that goes along with a long history of being misunderstood--more by critics, he said, than by audiences.

“I never get great reviews. I don’t seem to have the knack of making people happy,” he said.

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“The Shadow Box,” despite its ultimate acclaim, took a long time to get off the ground. Back in 1977, no one was doing shows about terminal illness. This was long before television became known for its disease-of-the-week movie mentality.

Cristofer was working primarily as an actor then, first in television, where he did everything from “Gunsmoke” to “Kojak,” and later at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. “The Shadow Box” was inspired by a teacher he knew who was ill.

But no one was interested in the play until fellow Taper actors Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Sada Thompson and Eileen Brennan did a reading of it for Taper Artistic Director Gordon Davidson.

Davidson not only decided to do it at the Taper, Cristofer says, but also pushed for the show to go to New York over the objection of producers who didn’t believe that audiences wanted to hear that kind of story.

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Compared to Cristofer’s earlier works, “Breaking Up” is actually a light piece. He based it on a couple of relationships he had that took a long time to end.

“It was just something I had been doing,” he said, referring to the process of breaking up. “And I noticed that everyone I knew was spending a lot of time breaking up with people. The story seemed at first to be sad, and when you see how familiar it is, it gets to be funny.

“It’s the humor of recognition,” he said.

“Breaking Up” has been done just twice before, at the River Arts Repertory in Woodstock in 1986, and in 1990 at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, N.J., starring Matthew Modine. Stuart Ross, the creator and director of the immensely popular “Forever Plaid” at the Old Globe, directed it at the American Stage and is directing the Globe production here.

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Ross is known for his upbeat perspective, from his sweet take in “Forever Plaid” to the lightness of his co-authored Tony-nominated musical “Starmites.” Pairing him with Cristofer may seem odd, but Cristofer said there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of “Breaking Up.”

“I think the play says something nice about the fact that people do grow and not everything ends with hearts and flowers and life everlasting, and it’s OK. It’s OK that some things don’t last.”

Cristofer still performs. He received acclaim for his work as Claudius in the Roundabout Theatre’s “Hamlet” in New York in March. He also writes screenplays: “Falling in Love,” “Shadow Box,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

And yes, he continues to write plays.

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His latest, “Execution of the Caregiver,” is based on the true story of a woman in South Carolina who was a sweet, loving caregiver, but ended up killing her mother, fiance and several people she was supposed to be taking care of.

Yep, it sounds a lot like a Michael Cristofer play.

“I don’t know why I do it,” he said of the subject matter in his latest. “I love doing comedy. I think I’m going to do more comedies. I think this is my last dark play.”

* “Breaking Up” opens tonight at the Old Globe Theatre’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage. Performances, which continue through Aug. 23, are at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday, with occasional Saturday matinees. Call 239-2255.

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