‘A play about blue states, red states and all the colors in between,” says the press statement for “Adopt a Sailor” by Charles Evered. That sounds pretty political. Says Evered, who splits his time between Princeton and Los Angeles: “I think all plays are political. If you have two human beings on stage, it’s a political play. But I wanted to focus on the human element and not get into what has become nothing but posturing and chest beating from both sides of the political spectrum,” Evered says, adding that his focus had been on three particular people — a small-town sailor and two upscale New Yorkers who invite the sailor to dinner. “Adopt a Sailor” will preview at a public reading Thursday, December 14, at the ConTEMPORARY Arts Center, prior to its full production in New York City opening this March.
The origins of this play date back to the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. A number of playwrights (including Christopher Durang, John Patrick Shanley, John Guare, Lynne Nottage, Edwin Sanchez, and Evered) were asked to write 10-minute plays to commemorate 9/11. They were performed at Town Hall in New York City under the umbrella title “Brave New World.”
Evered grew up in Rutherford, the yougest of five. His father, a World War II veteran, was a businessman who sold field warehousing out of an office in New York, and taught the Dale Carnegie Public Speaking course part-time. His mother, also born and raised in Rutherford, was a homemaker and in her later years worked for the town newspaper, the South Bergenite. In 1987, Evered graduated from Rutgers-Newark with a BA in English, with a minor in journalism. Some reports say his major was anthropology; Evered tells me that he had an interest there and took several anthropology courses but it wasn’t his major.
He earned an MFA in playwriting in 1991 at the Yale School of Drama, where he met the woman who would become his wife; made a number of connections with theater artists who are still his friends; and had his play, “Size of the World,” produced. In August, 2001, he decided to go to the United State Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, Florida, as well as to take the Navy Officer Leadership Course in Tacoma, Washington.
Currently, he commutes between Princeton, where his wife, Wendy Rolfe Evered, and two children live (John, who just turned 6, and Margaret, 7) and Los Angeles, where he works on television and film projects. His wife and children like Princeton and for him Los Angeles is “work” or as he states it, “a company town.” Not surprisingly, Evered says of Princeton: “I wanted my kids to be in a world of ideas and in a place where education and history matters.” Sometimes he drives home from LA: “I live for travelling across the coutnry like this, staying at $33 motels, meeting lots of people you never meet in New York or LA — this is a writer’s dream.”
He has written screenplays for DreamWorks, Universal and Paramount. Yale buddy and actor Liev Schreiber adapted Evered’s play, “The Size of the World,” for the screen, and he is working on an original half-hour pilot for NBC.
His most widely visible upcoming project is an episode for the television series “Monk” called “Mr. Monk and the Leper.” When it airs on Friday, December 22, on the USA network, Evered and his family are checking into the Nassau Inn for a personal TV-watching party, complete with room service. It’s absolutely necessary. They don’t have cable television at home.
In an E-mail interchange, Evered shares his musings on “Adopt a Sailor.”
Q: What was your reaction to being asked to write one of the plays to be produced at Town Hall after 9/11?
A: When first asked to write something, I immediately responded in the negative, because as you might recall, a year after was almost no time at all; it was still too raw, and the thought that I would write something about it seemed entirely inappropriate. For me it was further exacerbated by the fact that about five days after the attacks, I went down to the site at the World Trade Center myself, as a journalist for the navy, in order to document the awfulness of it there and write about it. I went along with a Navy photographer from my unit. (I was then attached to a Navy Public Affairs Unit in Manhattan in my capacity as a Navel Information Officer in the reserves.)
I don’t have to tell anyone what it was like down there — at that point, they had pretty much given up hope of rescuing anyone but the pile was still on fire; the whole perimeter was still entirely unstable. And so I remember that after Erica (producer Erica Gould) called, I hung up and told my wife, why would I write something about it? What could be said about it? It was too large an event to write about, too huge. I went to bed that night convinced I would never set pen to paper, then woke up in the middle of the night, took my notebook out and wrote the initial ten-minute play in about 25 white hot minutes. It just poured out of me.
Q: I understand that your wife and two other professional actors are performing at this reading. Who originated the roles at Town Hall?
A: I was pleased that it was one of the only plays they performed on all three nights, and the actors who performed it in a rotating cast were amazing: Sam Waterston, Amy Irving, Bebe Neuwirth, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Nouri.
Q: What was the response?
A: The reception the play got was startling to me. I think it spoke to a lot of people because it dared to voice our outrage at the event that happened at a time where already there were people both here in this country, and certainly abroad, who were saying that we brought it upon ourselves, and the implication in some quarters was that we shouldn’t have been surprised that this had happened, because of certain policies we had, because of what was perceived as our country’s arrogance, etc. I wanted and I think I did succeed in writing a play that broke through what I thought were irrational voices on both sides — the side that felt compelled to blame America and the side that was trying to immediately use the awful event as a justification for a blanketed rationalization for unchecked militancy, those who wanted revenge for revenge’s sake.
Q: What led you to make this a full-length play?
A: After the play (at Town Hall) was done I assumed I would just move on but then people starting to do the play in different places, and friends of mine and strangers out in the world would E-mail me and ask me whether I would consider expanding the play. Again, as with my initial instinct in writing the play, I resisted because I thought the play said what it had to say at the time it had to say it, and so I moved on to other projects. But then Andy Breckman, the producer and creator of “Monk,” kept after me; he had seen the play in New York and was personally very moved by it. Andy offered to commission me to write a full-length version of it.
Q: Have you made any changes in point of view since originally writing the play because of our government’s response to the attack?
A: I knew times had changed, circumstances had changed, so I knew that I would have to find a window into the play that didn’t deal exclusively with looking through the prism of the attacks. Also by then several plays had come out theatrically that dealt with that day, and I thought that several of them seemed tin-eared and kind of “too topical.” In writing the full-length version I knew I would have to deal with the human relationships involved. It became obvious to me that, sadly, we would be at war for some time.
I decided to keep the same basic situation in the play, the same cast of characters, but the full-length play deals more with how we are all trying to adjust to this new reality. How do we navigate our way through this very dangerous, very scary time? How do we find similarities and commonalities in our society, rather than only focusing on the split in our society, those “for” or “against” the war. I believe all of us have more in common than we think.
I also wanted to deal directly with the way the military is often depicted in fictional works. Being a person in the military myself, I was more than a little exhausted from seeing military characters in plays and television and movies depicted as one-dimensional trigger-happy morons.
Q: Could you explain more about how your military background has informed your work as a writer?
A: From the standpoint of being a writer, joining the military was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Rather than sitting around Starbucks with a bunch of writers all day, bitching about our agents, or rather than hanging out only with people who agreed with me, as happens in so many academic settings, it forced me to engage and think out of myself and more importantly, serve something greater than my own self-interest. That was the greatest aspect of it. Now I also think that would be true if I had joined the Peace Corps. I don’t think it’s about being military or not; I think at its core, it’s about service. Regardless of how politicians may screw things up, I will always be honored to have served with such extraordinary people from all over the country.
Q: How political is this play?
A: I’ve had right-wingers chastise me for writing such a liberal play, and I’ve had very liberal people leave convinced I was to the right of Attila the Hun. But I see that as a badge of honor, frankly. Because rather than preaching to them, I incited something within them. That’s my job. Not to confirm or re-affirm deeply-held beliefs. Personally, I happen to be a political independent. I didn’t feel like writing another Bush-bashing play; I think there are more than enough of those already. I also have no desire to write a play that tries to rationalize or encourage military policy that at the very least may seem ill-advised. Like most of my plays, it’s sort of a “Rorschach” play and depends on where you come from.
“Adopt A Sailor,” Thursday, December 14, 7:30 p.m., Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street. Staged reading of Charles Evered’s play about a successful hip couple from New York City who inadvertently adopt a sailor from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, during Fleet Week. $5. 609-924-8777.