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An Alum Accepts McCarter

This article by Simon Saltzberg was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

I never read the reviews," says playwright Richard

Greenberg. So maybe it isn’t cricket of me to mention either the many

raves or the wildly contrary responses Greenberg typically receives

from the critics following the opening of each new, eagerly-anticipated

play.

Over the past 18 years, Greenberg says he has learned not to be undone

by others and their opinions. As a result, he has contributed the

kind of tantalizing and testy sort of dramatic literature that must

surely make many a dramatist green with envy.

A Greenberg play is full surprises, contradictions, enigmas, and mystery.

And Many a misguided, mean-spirited critic has turned red with embarrassment

when another one of Greenberg’s ingeniously complex and enigmatic

plays perplexes him — yet manages to find its deserved public

approval. ("I hope you are right, I like those words," says

an amused Greenberg.) Undoubtedly a little biased, I am a fan and

tell Greenberg so. So much for a reporter’s objectivity.

The playwright, whose work includes such lauded plays as "Eastern

Standard," "An American Plan," and "Three Days of

Rain" (which recently concluded an extended run at the Manhattan

Theater Club), has to know that he is bringing a particular honor

back to his alma mater, Princeton University. As the author of "Safe

as Houses," now having its world premiere at the McCarter Theater,

Greenberg, Class of 1980, becomes only the second Princeton graduate

to have a play premiere at McCarter. It was in 1950 that Princeton

graduate Joshua Logan (Class of ’31) premiered his play "The Wisteria

Trees" here.

How could Greenberg have guessed how his sophomoric

remarks about McCarter Theater back when he graduated would come back

to haunt him? "It’s so vast, you could never do `The Glass Menagerie’

here," he pronounced back then. Today, meeting in artistic director

Emily Mann’s McCarter office, we laugh as we recall the success of

Mann’s impressive staging of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece during

her inaugural season. "I’m calmer now," says Greenberg, noting

that it help to have Mann directing his intimate play.

Greenberg’s self-described "unwieldy" script was put into

Mann’s hands two and one-half years ago. "When she got to the

last page, she made an offer," says Greenberg. However it wasn’t

the first time Greenberg had connected with Mann. They met on New

Year’s Day, 1989, at a party given by Greenberg’s lawyer. As fate

would have it, he turned out to be Mann’s lawyer, too.

But this was not what made Greenberg decide to follow Mann back to

Princeton. "It wasn’t anything she said, but rather the gestalt

of our meeting atop the Marriott Marquis that made me realize that

Emily was the right director for my play," he says.

While Greenberg’s last three plays have been produced at the Manhattan

Theater Club, the playwright makes no bones about his dissatisfaction

with the subscription audiences there ("they’re dead"), and

it being time for a change. And where would it be more welcoming than

the town of Princeton, where Greenberg recalls working for the Daily

Princetonian. "Life is phasing and it’s time for a new phase,"

Greenberg says.

Raised in Mineola, Long Island, the 40-year-old Greenberg recalls

being theater struck from the age of five, even though not a single

member of his family is involved in the profession. He describes his

mother as a professional adult college student, and his father as

an executive for a movie theater chain. "Oh, yes, I write screenplays

that don’t get made," adds Greenberg, surprising himself. Regrettably,

he has yet to be invited to write a screenplay treatment for one of

his own plays.

I submit to Greenberg that some of his plays, like "An American

Plan" and "The Extra Man," are products of a playwright

who might be a little too demanding of his audience. Some have criticized

these works for being uncompromisingly intelligent and even unconventionally

scary. "I don’t think I’m demanding enough," Greenberg responds.

"My last play, `Three Days of Rain,’ seems to have had the most

powerful effect on the audience. It is also the play that made audiences

work the hardest."

Greenberg says that it is his use of "dramatic irony" that

allows the audience to know more than the people onstage. Greenberg

is firm in his belief that audiences don’t want to be condescended

to, nor do they want to be imposed upon by an author’s intelligence.

"People get offended by gratuitous flashiness," he says.

Because he knows that it is difficult to target an audience, Greenberg

says he basically writes for himself and trusts that enough people

will share his interest.

With Greenberg’s new play getting its start at McCarter, we could

assume that this marks an end to what Greenberg sees as his

"complacency"

at the Manhattan Theater Club. He is confident the McCarter experience

will be similar to those he has had working in Costa Mesa, California,

where, he says, "the audiences are quite good, smart, and generous."

An unconventional three-act play, "Safe as Houses" is a family

saga that spans from 1980 to 1995. When the play begins, the powerful

patriarch of an upper-class Jewish family has hopes, in his retirement,

that his dreams and values will be carried on by his son Scott. A

visit by Rob, Scott’s college friend, becomes complicated when the

visitor inadvertently learns some unsettling things about his hosts.

This moment of overheard intimacy involves Rob in a spiral of family

secrets, personal betrayals, and the consequences of time’s leveling

hand. In the words of McCarter’s dramaturg Janice Paran: "Rob’s

poignant, oddly dependent relationship with the family takes on more

importance as he witnesses their domestic turmoil and attempts to

provide ballast for each of them, and ultimately, for himself."

Greenberg agrees that his plays share recurring themes. Primary among

these is their dualism: characters who are both light and dark, different

on the interior than on the exterior, basically not who they appear

to be, but opposite and complementary personalities. Greenberg promises

a similar dialectic in "Safe as Houses."

"I love the cast," Greenberg submits as he makes special mention

of four-time Emmy Award-winner Michael Learned who, in addition to

her many stage credits, achieved national recognition as Olivia Walton

in the long-running hit television series "The Waltons" (see

accompanying story). Also in the cast of six are David Margulies (seen

most recently in his Off-Broadway one-man show "Bashevis: Tales

of I.B. Singer"), Leslie Ayvazian, Barbara Garrick, Gus Rogerson,

Fredrick Weller, and five-year-old Sam Blackman Boyles, of Princeton.

What is it that Greenberg wants the audience to experience? "I

want them to feel their thoughts, their entire lives, an entire history

of a house, a household," says Greenberg. Of course, that remains

to be seen, and also for the critics to tell us. While we can’t guarantee

whether "Safe as Houses" will be Greenberg’s best play yet,

we can be sure that he won’t read the reviews.

— Simon Saltzman

Safe as Houses, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. Opening night is Friday, March 20, for the play that

continues to April 5.


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