Robert Lord's New York: Big and Small, Notes on Life and Art

Article excerpt

Last year I lived in expatriate New Zealand playwright Robert Lord's New York, just a few blocks - and nearly two decades - from his apartment on 85th and Broadway. I'd make frequent visits to Lord's favourite delicatessen, Zabar's, the Upper West Side's 'culinary and cultural landmark',1 which was on the other side of Broadway from my 88th Street apartment, and I would stroll through Riverside Park, where Lord used to go for daily walks with Becky, his beagle. Even though it was nearly twenty years since he lived there, reminders of Robert Lord were everywhere in Manhattan. This short reflective article is a tribute to the slippery tension between life and art present in Lord's playwriting.

Lord, a leading New Zealand playwright, wrote at least twenty-two plays,2 as well as screenplays, and radio and television scripts. After graduating from Victoria University in Wellington and Wellington Teachers' College,3 he won the Katherine Mansfield Young Writers Award.4 Lord's first play, It Isn't Cricket, received first a rehearsed reading at Downstage Theatre in Wellington in 1971,5 and then a workshop at the 1973 Australian National Playwrights Conference.6 It was after this conference - and during his four years on the editorial board of ACT magazine' - that Lord, 'fired up with the need for a playwrights' support system'8 in New Zealand, 'convened [a meeting] on the bed in his tiny Clifton Terrace bedsit'9 and from that meeting Playmarket New Zealand, 'a script advisory service and writer's agency',10 began. In 1974, Lord's comedy Well Hung premièred at Downstage Theatre and was an immediate 'box office hit';11 he later travelled to Connecticut to attend the O'Neil Playwrights Conference'2 and thereafter he chose to stay in the USA, making his home in New York City, where he continued to write prolifically. Lord returned to New Zealand for visits, and won the prestigious Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1987. Navigating the territory of some of Lord's preoccupations as a writer, this article focuses on three of his 'American' plays: China Wars (1989),13 Glorious Ruins (1991) and The Travelling Squirrel: Tails of Manhattan, earlier titled Star Crazy (1990).

Leaving New Zealand in the 1970s for Manhattan was an Odyssey from small to big. New York, before Mayor Giuliani's 'clean-up' in the 1990s, was much grittier than the New York I know today, a city bigger, more exciting and more dangerous by far than any in New Zealand. Today, the graffitied subway trains are gone, as are the soaring crime rates that were features of the New York landscape into which Robert Lord arrived from New Zealand in 1975. New Yorkers anecdotally note that Times Square today resembles a theme park, but in Lord's day it featured peepshows, adult cinemas and pickpockets. Lord embarked on this Odyssey at a time when he felt that New Zealand was not supportive to him as a writer.14 In China Wars, Molly and Harry Baker also embark on an Odyssey, in which they head 'towards the ... horizon'15 in their Winnebago motor home. Out there', small-town housewife Dolly muses to her husband Ken, they 'could be anyone'.16 In New York, Lord, the newcomer, could 'be anyone' as a writer, and in this way he observed afresh both America and New Zealand.

I met Robert Lord's close friend, Tony award-winning New York director Jack Hofsiss, at HB Studios in the West Village, where be teaches directing, and later at his home in Brooklyn. Lord and Hofsiss met in 1979, the same year in which Hofsiss had won his Tony - and a clutch of other awards - for directing The Elephant Man on Broadway; at that point, he was the youngest director ever to win the Tony. The two met through a mutual friend on Fire Island, near New York, where both spent summers." They later discovered that they were represented by the same agency, William Morris; they became friends first, then 'show biz"8 associates later:

we connected just on a ... human being to human being level. …