When something needs to be done, ask the busiest person — or so the saying goes. And it often seems to be true. So it wasn’t surprising that when I got a call saying Sandy Duncan, scheduled to star in the title role of George Street Playhouse’s new play “Creating Claire,” was ill and couldn’t talk with me, but that playwright Joe DiPietro could fill in. (Due to Duncan’s illness, George Street announced that the actress will be replaced by 1992 Drama Desk Award winner and Tony nominee Barbara Walsh.)
I soon found myself chatting on the phone with DiPietro, indeed a very busy man. A look at his schedule would daunt almost anyone. Currently, however, he is focusing on one of his newest plays, “Creating Claire,” which goes into previews on Tuesday, May 18; opening night is Friday, May 21. Of course, he has paused occasionally to celebrate award nominations as they accrue for his current Broadway success, the musical “Memphis,” which received eight Tony nominations.
Last summer “Creating Claire” was workshopped at the Cape Cod Theater Project in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where professional theater directors and actors work with American playwrights, holding staged readings of their work in development. DiPietro then gave the draft to David Saint, George Street’s artistic director. “He read it and called me the next day saying, ‘I want to do it,’” says DiPietro.
DiPietro has enjoyed success at George Street before. In 2008 John Rando directed the musical “The Toxic Avenger” with book by DiPietro, music by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame), and lyrics by both of them. Dealing as it did with the swamps of home (New Jersey), it was a big success and emerged again Off Broadway, opening in April, 2009, also directed by Rando, to run for eight months and garner accolades, including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway musical of the season.
Claire is a tour guide in an upstate New York museum of natural history. While making her usual spiel to the visitors regarding Darwin’s theories of evolution, she suddenly begins to include her own ideas regarding “intelligent design.” Her personal religious awakening has seeped into this very scientific world. In addition to infuriating her boss at the museum, who fires her, there are also repercussions with her husband and her daughter, who is autistic.
DiPietro says the idea for the play came to him when he saw a newspaper article about a group of religious fanatics who went to a natural history museum “Evolution of Life” tour. “They had peppered the guide with questions, pressing their agenda: ‘How do you know what you’re saying is right? How can you explain this?’” Realizing that most of these guides are “retirees or stay-at-home moms who want to get out of the house a few hours each day,” he could imagine how overwhelming this might be. “And maybe it might be more interesting if the tour guide herself began espousing these things. That started my journey writing this play.”
Following a theme that has been evidenced in a number of his previous plays, the humor and humanity of the situation appealed to DiPietro’s imagination. The playwright has been noted for his comic point of view since his school days in northern New Jersey, continuing through his college years — he graduated from Rutgers with a degree in English in 1984.
When I ask him about his own philosophy, he says, “I like to think of myself as a humanist. We writers need to empathize with our characters.” He says he feels that “Creating Claire” doesn’t take a particular political or religious side. “It’s a show about four people trying to make sense of their lives. As a dramatist, I try to understand everybody; I want to write four complete human people.” And we can count on DiPietro to also make the most of the humor in human behavior, even when they are being serious.
Claire’s husband is a religious agnostic. “What do you do when your spouse changes fairly drastically? He’d just like to get his normal life back.” This is an interesting description from the author of the hugely successful “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” This was the play that jumpstarted his career in the theater, opening on August 1, 1996, and playing for a record 5,003 performances. It has been performed all over the world, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, from Barcelona to Budapest. This revue about suburbanites dating and marrying explores the irony that the “perfect mate” becomes someone else once their union is “legal.” Now, 15 years later, Pietro says, “People change. One needs to adjust.”
He thinks that audiences, whatever their religious beliefs, will follow the journey of each of the characters. This sounds very serious: science versus religion. “Perhaps I think we need both,” says DiPietro. “Humankind needs both. There are limits to each of them: how God deals with science and how science deals with God — it’s complex. That’s why I’m really proud of this one.” He has been working on the play for about three years, mostly thinking about it. “It wrote itself easily, which is usually a good sign to me.”
A lot of things seem to have come easily since his days growing up in Oradel, New Jersey. In high school his teachers discovered his talent and he won a national playwriting competition. His father was a banker (now retired); his mom was a stay-at-home mom until he and his sisters, one older, one younger, were out of the house. One of his creative genes came from his mom, who “has become quite a fine painter,” he says.
I first saw his work in 1994 at the American Stage Theater (no longer in existence) in Englewood, where a number of his first plays were produced. Off Broadway was next.
In 2005 DiPietro made his Broadway debut with the musical “All Shook Up,” a “jukebox musical” featuring the music of Elvis Presley. He wrote the book loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” (See how a degree in English literature can be helpful?) Though it ran for a month of previews and six months of regular performances, it wasn’t the hit that had been hoped for. He had worked on it for two years and was disappointed.
Considering what to do next, he decided not to “lick my wounds and slow down,” but instead to write as much as he could as fast as he could. “It was a good life lesson. I know now. Just do your show. Write something that means something to you. Get people around you who you trust, and take it from there.”
One of those people he trusts is David Saint. “He’s a terrific guy and a top rate director,” says DiPietro. “He creates a very creative and fun rehearsal room, loves theater and theater people, and can turn anyone into a believer in what he’s doing. Once in a while he’ll give a direction and I’ll think, ‘I’d never thought of it that way. This is much better than my original idea.’”
Once “Creating Claire” is underway, he has a busy schedule for the summer that will have him traveling a lot. That post-”All Shook Up” writing marathon is paying off. Hands-on with the George Street production of “Creating Claire,” he will also do the same for “Falling for Eve” an Off Broadway musical he was commissioned to write for the York Theater. A retelling of the Adam and Eve story, it opens Tuesday, July 6.
At some point, he’ll go to Chicago to see the production of his play “Fucking Men,” which opens Saturday, June 26. He explains the title, sort of: “I wrote this as a writing exercise, never expecting it to be done because it calls for an economically unfeasible 10 actors, has no lead role to attract a star, and I gave it an aggressive title.” (“Aggressive” is one word for it.) However, it was produced successfully in London this past fall. He describes it as a gay twist on the Schnitzler play “La Ronde.”
DiPietro’s friend and everyone’s favorite TV mother from “Happy Days,” Marion Ross, asked him to write a play for her and her husband, who are both in their 80s. He was a little anxious about writing for someone he knows. “What if it’s not good?” However, they performed “The Last Romance” last year in Kansas City and it went “really well,” he says. Now the play is being mounted at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, opening Friday, July 30, for its West Coast premiere.
Undeterred by all this activity, he and David Bryan, his collaborator on “Toxic Avenger” and “Memphis,” are working on another musical, this one about songwriters in the early ’60s titled “Sing the Song.” As with “Memphis,” the music is new, but “inheriting the soul of the old music” of that particular time. Explaining how this worked on “Memphis,” he says, “Know the time period but write a score through modern ears. Some of the chord progressions would not have happened in the ’50s. It sounds like the ’50s but it’s not rock and roll, it’s much more sophisticated than that.”
There’s also talk of a film adaptation of “Memphis.” DiPietro says, “I think it’ll happen; we should be selling the rights soon. And I hope I’ll be able to write the first draft or two of the screenplay.” But he admits that he doesn’t understand the film world and definitely feels more at home in the theater. “I love theater and am fortunate to be able to work in it. During the ’70s when I was growing up, my folks took me to see shows. I saw ‘Annie,’ ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘The Elephant Man,’ ‘The Wiz.’” So theater was never that foreign to me, and I always loved it. This is a good argument for exposing your kids to culture.”
He assures me that he has lots of ideas for new projects “ruminating” in his mind but he does hope to take a breather once his summerfull of shows is over. He says he plans to “throw” his dog Rocko (an eight-year-old pug) into his car and “get away from New York and my life” to his Connecticut home. He plans to relax — and write, of course.
“Creating Claire,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews begin Tuesday, May 18; opening night Friday, May 21; through Sunday, June 6. Barbara Walsh plays the title role in Joe DiPietro’s new play. David Saint directs. $31.50 to $71.50. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.