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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
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
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,"
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
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
Place, 609-683-8000. Opening night is Friday, March 20, for the play that
continues to April 5.
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