A Big Problem : Playwright Richard Nelson, Whose Latest Work Is at SCR, Tends to Pen Unaffordable, Large-Scale Works


Richard Nelson has written himself into an enviable, if strangely paradoxical, corner.

The playwright from Chicago, whose latest comedy, "New England," is at South Coast Rep through Sunday, has had seven plays produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, six of them commissioned over the past decade.

But the plays he writes for the RSC are so large in scale--not least because the London-based classical troupe wants to keep its roughly two dozen salaried actors working--that few other theaters can afford to produce them, especially the underfunded professional resident companies in this country.

Nelson's plays have not gone homeless outside of England, however. Two are running in Moscow and Prague--"Misha's Party" on the main stage of the state-supported Moscow Art Theatre and "Two Shakespearean Actors" at the National Theatre of the Czech Republic, where Mozart premiered "Don Giovanni" two centuries ago.

Also, the large Renaissance Theatre in Berlin has just done "Misha's Party" in German. And this summer the RSC will mount Nelson's latest, "The General From America," at Stratford.

This means that Nelson, 45, may be the most successful, prolific and internationally well-received American dramatist that theatergoers in this country have never heard of. Doubly ironic, Nelson got his start two decades ago in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, which gave the first of his two dozen plays ("The Killing of Yablonsky") its first professional production.

Nelson described the arc of his career in a recent interview at SCR.

"What happened," he said, "is that in 1986, a play of mine was done at the RSC called 'Principia Scriptoriae,' not one of the world's better titles. . . . It was a fantastic success. Two days after they opened it, the RSC said to me, 'Would you write a play for us?' "

He laughed and swiped a hand across his forehead, brushing back his gray, lank hair. Except for round, unfashionable glasses with clear-plastic frames, which give him the heartfelt look of a sincere intellectual, Nelson might pass for a clean-shaven, square-jawed businessman from the Midwest.

"Well, the week after every show I've written for them, they've asked me to do another. So I've had this great situation."

Nelson's relationship with the RSC evolved in good measure because of his own interest in writing on a large scale. But even he was not quite prepared for how large.

In 1989, after agreeing to do "Some Americans Abroad," which it had commissioned, the RSC asked if he could expand his canvas still further. He recalls being told, "This is really good. We want to do it. Pity, though, there aren't more characters."

In fact, "Some Americans Abroad" has 14 characters, a teeming cast by most contemporary standards. "I said OK," Nelson recounted. "That play did well, so I wrote 'Two Shakespearean Actors,' which has 30-something parts."

The RSC did Nelson's epic "Columbus and the Discovery of Japan" in 1992 and "New England" in 1994.

Given his involvement with things British, it is perhaps not surprising that "New England" (which has a mere eight characters) centers on a group of British emigres living in America. He calls it "an immigrant play" about a far-flung family that, for all the privilege of its new surroundings, feels somehow displaced.

"One of the most interesting things in the world today," Nelson said, "is that American culture sits preeminent. That means the rest of the world is constantly facing American culture and America. They're constantly defining themselves by it, against it, around it, within it. Whichever, there's always some relationship--with a few exceptions, like China--wherever you go.

"That theme, that relationship makes the world a crazy mass. People find themselves in a place that's very tantalizing, very exciting. America and American culture has a lot to offer, and yet it makes them wonder what happened to their background, their place, their culture? They feel a little crazy. It overwhelms them. They feel lost. They feel scared.

"I also think of 'New England' as a family play. I don't mean a family-values play. Here's a family that has moved to separate places all over the United States, and now it's come together to the home of their father [in Connecticut], which has never been their home. That's displacement."

Nelson knows what it's like to wander. Born on Chicago's South Side, he spent his childhood in Gary, Ind., went to high school near Detroit, then moved with his family to Delaware and later to the New York City suburbs.

"Where I live now is probably my hometown"--Rhinebeck in upstate New York along the Hudson River--"because I've lived there for the last 13 years, which is more than three times longer than I've lived anywhere."

Nelson first connected with England while still in high school. He spent three weeks in London seeing an average of two plays a day. On graduation from Hamilton College in 1972, he won a traveling fellowship, married his girlfriend, Cindy, and the two of them moved to Manchester, north of London.

"We could live there very reasonably," Nelson said. "But my real goal was to do what I'd never been able to: get up every morning and write. All through college, even though I'd written a lot of plays, I'd always had to fit writing in between other things. All I wanted was to get the rhythm of something I wanted my life to be about."

Nelson also traveled to the Continent. This eventually fostered working relationships over the years with a number of Eastern European directors and writers now well-known in the American theater--Liviu Ciulei and Andre Serban, both from Romania, and Ivan Passer, from Czechoslovakia.

But it was in New York that his connection with the RSC came about. David Jones, artistic director of the BAM Theatre Co. of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, hired him to be his dramaturge. Jones, who also was an associate director at the RSC, urged him to write plays for the large BAM troupe. Nelson obliged with an epic called "Rip Van Winkle or the Works," which was to open BAM's third season in the early '80s. Unfortunately, there was no third season.

Jones took the play to Yale Repertory. When he returned to London, he asked Nelson for another play to take with him--"Principia Scriptoriae."

After BAM, Nelson moved to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, again as dramaturge. Ciulei, who was directing there, asked him to try adapting classical plays from other languages.

Nelson did Moliere's "Don Juan"--Ciulei got it done by the Arena Stage in Washington--and an adaptation of Goldoni's "Il Campiello"--again for Ciulei, this time at The Acting Company in New York.

In the meantime, David Mamet saw Nelson's "The Vienna Notes" at Playwrights Horizons. He liked it so much that he told Gregory Mosher, then-artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago: "This is a play you have to do." Mosher asked Nelson whether he had any others.

"I told him that I'd just finished one but that I could not believe he'd want to do it," Nelson recalled. "I said I'd written it for myself and that I wasn't sure it would ever get on. Gregory did it. He put it on with Jim Belushi. It was called 'Bal.' Very controversial, in some ways scandalous. It drove people out of the Goodman in droves."

Mosher, not easily dissuaded, hired Nelson to be one of his three associate directors. (The others were Jennifer Tipton, the noted lighting designer, and Mamet, who would dedicate "Edmond," one of his most uncompromising plays, to Nelson and Wallace Shawn).

When Mosher became artist director of the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, he produced the American premieres of "Some Americans Abroad" and "Two Shakespearean Actors." Both productions were hits and transferred to Broadway houses. The latter was nominated for four Tony Awards.

Nelson was hardly an overnight success. He'd been writing for a decade when the Mark Taper Forum launched him in 1975 at what was then the Taper Lab for undiscovered playwrights. Living in Philadelphia at the time, he'd looked up the Taper's address and had sent his script about a celebrated murder trial, "The Killing of Yablonsky."

He still marvels at the response. "They called me: 'We wanna do it.' They flew me out for all the rehearsals. The first person in professional theater that I ever met was the director who picked me up at LAX, John Dennis."

The Taper did another of his plays at the Lab, "Conjuring an Event" (1976), and a third, "The Vienna Notes," a premiere on the main stage (1979). A well-received hit, it was remounted in New York, where Mamet saw it.

But a fourth play at the Taper, "An American Comedy" in 1983, was a dud. Nelson hasn't had a production there since.

He isn't disturbed by his relatively scarce presence in U.S. theaters, despite a recent staging of his Strindberg adaptation "The Father" with Frank Langella in a limited run on Broadway.

"Many, many theaters have said to me they would like to do 'Two Shakespearean Actors,' for example," he said. "But they can't afford 30 or more actors. So a number of my plays are basically unproducible by a lot of theaters in this country."

Even so, Nelson has a long career ahead of him.

"What's good is that I've laid down so many strong pillars: I have historical plays; I've got genre plays about contemporary groups of people; I continue to collaborate with playwrights, especially from other cultures, and I continue to do adaptations.

"So if something doesn't seem quite right over here, I can go over there. What I've gained is that I've made a living as a playwright for a very long time. I don't teach. I don't do anything else. I write. That's my career, and I couldn't be happier."

Nelson seems never to have suffered from writer's block either. He has done a TV adaptation of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome," which starred Liam Neeson; a screen adaptation of "Two Shakespearean Actors"; another of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," to go into preproduction in January at London's Channel 4; and he has just finished a screen version of "New England" for the BBC.

Theatergoers in Orange County could have more Nelson plays in their future. SCR producing artist director David Emmes and he "are talking," both of them say, possibly about a commission. Such discussions are always tentative. But perhaps Nelson may be moved to write something small.

* "New England" by Richard Nelson continues through Sunday at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World