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Richard Greenberg: The Mind Lighting The Well-Appointed Room

by Curt Columbus, Thomas Murray & William Nedved

To experience a play by Richard Greenberg – whose past Steppenwolf productions include Three Days of Rain, The Dazzle, The Violet Hour and About Face’s Take Me Out – is to question our very notions of the past, present and future. “It’s something that concerns me a lot,” Greenberg revealed to Backstage. “In my life, I’m always trying to construe time. I’m trying to understand it subjectively, understand how it operates and, in a way, how it feels. In experience, I’ve been trying to put that on stage for a number of years, a number of plays.” Steppenwolf audiences will again be transported by Greenberg’s theatrical time machine when The Well-Appointed Room debuts in January. The play comprises two linked acts entitled “Nostalgia” and “Prolepsis.” The production will be staged by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney, who directed The Violet Hour. Unlike The Violet Hour, which was set in 1919, The Well-Appointed Room takes place in the first few years of the 21st Century. “This play is a response to how we live now,” says director Kinney. “This is a major turn for one of the most important playwrights of our time.” The turn for The Well-Appointed Room is decidedly darker. The plays, Greenberg reveals, “are linked by anxiety.” The New York-based playwright began work on the piece immediately after the 2004 Republican National Convention. That summer, Greenberg had also finished reading A Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald, a harrowing book questioning how Germany’s ruin and casualties during World War Two occupied such little space in their cultural memory. “And it had to do with personal circumstances and sensibility,” Greenberg adds. “I was living in one apartment that got too much light. I find the light of August prying and uncomfortable and relentless and often ugly. So, that was, if anything, aggravating my mood. The only time I felt a mastery of my situation was writing.” Greenberg’s compulsive writing has served him well over the years. Early plays include The Author’s Voice, The American Plan and Eastern Standard, the last of which preceded Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to be among the first stage works to depict a person living with HIV. Among this wide-ranging body of work, Steppenwolf has gravitated toward his time-fixated plays. Three Days of Rain reverses a progressive march through time by first introducing three angst-ridden New Yorkers struggling to find a sense of identity, and then revealing the colorful identities of their progenitors thirty years prior. Three Days of Rain evaluates the emotional desolation, the lack of answers and the negativity of the 1990s, and then spins backward to reveal the premises of a happier decade that progressively broke down into the defeated present. The 1998 Steppenwolf production was directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro and featured ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as well as Ian Barford (Lost Land). In The Dazzle, Greenberg imagined the lives of Harlem’s notoriously eccentric Collyer brothers, about whom Greenberg admits on the script’s first page that he “knows almost nothing.” After Langley Collyer aborts his own 1920s high-society wedding at the end of the first act, the action of the play jumps twenty years to the mid-1940s and rejoins Langley and his brother Homer living in filthy seclusion – receiving and hoarding articles of sustenance from the outside world but discarding nothing from their crowded Victorian mansion-turned-fortress. The cast included ensemble member Tracy Letts, as well as Susan Bennett and David Pasquesi, and was directed by David Cromer in the Upstairs Theatre in the spring of 2002. The Violet Hour – whose 2003 Steppenwolf production preceded the Broadway run – tells the story of young publisher John Pace Seavering, who is starting his own publishing firm. Such routine business affairs are interrupted, however, by the arrival of a mysterious machine that prints literature and correspondence from decades in the future – enrapturing the publisher’s assistant and threatening to change Seavering’s trajectory from confident rising-star to spiraling paranoiac. Terry Kinney’s cast included ensemble member Tim Hopper, along with Kate Arrington (The Pain and the Itch) Josh Hamilton, Ora Jones and Kevin Stark. Take Me Out, produced by About Face Theatre last spring, may seem an anomaly to Greenberg’s time-themed work. That Tony-winning play, which enjoyed an extended run in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre in 2005, concerns the fallout in the locker room when a star baseball player comes out of the closet. But as suggested in a previous issue of Backstage, the sport of baseball itself is defiant to the restrictions of time. The character of Mason in Take Me Out reminds us, “In baseball there’s no clock.” Not only are there no time limitations imposed upon the length of a baseball game, the sport itself seems virtually immune to the clock. Deeply rooted in its traditions and nostalgia, baseball has a timeless quality. Beyond their thematic exploration of time, Greenberg’s plays often question what it means to live in the moment. There is a sense of reflection on our conceptions of the past, countered by the uncertain pressures of the future upon the present in all of his work. However, one shouldn’t expect the playwright himself to look too closely at his body of work. “If I were to become too aware of it, I’d be in jeopardy of parodying myself in my next play,” Greenberg predicts. “I think it’s when playwrights know what people are thinking about them, when they know what their themes are, that they fall apart.” This much is for certain: Greenberg is a writer of the moment. In addition to the world premiere of The Well-Appointed Room at Steppenwolf, he will see a number of his plays produced this year. Both A Naked Girl on the Appian Way and The House in Town will debut in New York under the direction of Doug Hughes, who directed Hedda Gabler and The Playboy of the Western World at Steppenwolf. Film star Julia Roberts will headline the Broadway debut of Three Days of Rain in the spring of 2006. Outside of New York, Bal Masque premieres at Washington D.C.’s Theater J, while a revival of The American Plan is expected in London’s West End in the fall. The time has come for Richard Greenberg.