Prolific playwright shies away from the spotlight

Website Review

Judith Newmark –, August 18, 2012

Some playwrights like to see their work on stage, but Richard Greenberg cannot imagine why.

“I believe that Nicky goes to every performance he can,” Greenberg said of his friend, Nicky Silver. “Sometimes he works in the box office and sells people tickets. Sometimes he answers the phone.

“As for me, I go only under duress. It’s more stressful than pleasurable unless there’s a good place to hide. When they did ‘Take Me Out’ at the Public, I could watch from the stage manager’s booth. It’s very high there, very safe. It was nice.”

In other words, do not look for him when Max & Louie Productions stages the St. Louis premiere of his 2003 fantasy/comedy, “The Violet Hour“. But he concedes that he is tempted, simply because Max & Louie performs at COCA, a building that used to be a synagogue.

Greenberg loves the idea of his plays’ going on to long life in all kinds of venues. “That’s what you hope for the career of any play,” said the famously prolific writer. “(Thornton Wilder’s) ‘Our Town’ started on Broadway and now it’s done everywhere, at schools and probably at car washes. Good! The more locales, the better. You want your play in every kind of theater where it can fit.”

He’s not even sure he likes Broadway best, although he’s going back there next year. At 54, Greenberg has two shows in the works: a drama called “The Assembled Parties” that the Manhattan Theatre Club will produce with Jessica Hecht and Judith Light, “two of my favorite actresses,” and a musical based on the movie “Far From Heaven” that will star another of his favorites, Kelli O’Hara. “Scientists should study her,” he opines, “to see where the human race is headed.”

Both productions carry a hint of glamour and possibility befitting a dramatist whose plays include “Three Days of Rain” (revived a few seasons back with Julia Roberts) and “Take Me Out“, for which he won the 2003 Tony for best play. A drama about a baseball superstar who reveals that he’s gay, the play was also a hit for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where it opened the late lamented Off-Ramp series.

But to this day, Greenberg says that he lacks a Broadway sensibility, and he suspects he knows why. “When I started out no one thought of Broadway any more, and it is for that reason less intimidating than perhaps it should be,” he said. “Times Square is exciting and the marquees are fun, but it’s a lark.”

Anyway, he adds, it’s been a while. “By the time that ‘The Assembled Parties’ opens, it will be almost six years since I have had anything new in New York. I am OK with that, but I am going slower now.”

He can afford to. Greenberg has more than two dozen produced plays behind him, and who knows how many more in a drawer. This was usual in the days of Christopher Marlowe, less so now.

He started writing drama after he graduated from Princeton and went to Harvard to continue his studies. “Harvard didn’t quite notice that I was just kind of warehousing myself there,” he said. “They gave me a scholarship but I don’t know why, and in the few months time that I went to class I said not a single intelligent thing.

“I had nothing to do, so I wrote a play that I sent to Yale, which took me in its theater program. I knew how to go to school.”

With a resume that practically sprouted ivy, Greenberg had his first play on a New York stage in 1984. Since then he’s just kept going, through successes and failures and a bout of Hodgkin’s lymphoma (“my itty-bitty cancer,” he calls it) around 20 years ago. But even more remarkable than the imposing volume of Greenberg’s work is its variety, in terms both of style and subject matter.

Greenberg says he reads that way, too. “I think I read a lot,” he said, “but there are times when I don’t read anything worthy. Sometimes I hunker down with paperback murder mysteries. It’s not shameful but it’s not high-minded either. This is the problem I have with genre.”

The Assembled Parties“, for example, started out as a comedy but finished as a drama. And then there’s “The Violet Hour“. It flirts with genres in which Greenberg claims to have no interest at all, fantasy and science fiction.

Set in New York in 1919, “The Violet Hour” centers on a cash-strapped young publisher who has to choose which book to bring out: the memoirs of his mistress or a massive novel by the man who was his college roommate (and maybe more). As he wrestles with the conflict, the publisher acquires a remarkable piece of office equipment, a machine that spits out pages detailing the future that awaits him and his friends.

The Violet Hour” fits “no category,” Greenberg said. “I don’t read fantasy or science fiction, but it hovers around that — and it’s romantic. Every now and then I write something in a genre that I don’t pursue as a member of the audience. I don’t know why.”

The play is comic in many ways, he said — but not when it comes to that machine he dreamed up, a kind of super-accurate crystal ball. Would he want a peek?

“My God, no!” he said with an almost audible shudder. “It would be horrible! I think it would be like some website I’d never want to go to. I don’t even Google myself.”