The Greenberg Juggernaut: This Is the Season When Everyone Wants a Piece of Richard the Prolific

By Hong, Terry | American Theatre, February 2006 | Go to article overview

The Greenberg Juggernaut: This Is the Season When Everyone Wants a Piece of Richard the Prolific


Hong, Terry, American Theatre


A conversation with Richard Greenherg, the Tony-winning writer of more than 20 plays, comes with an unsettling disclaimer. "Every interview I've given is a pack of lies," he declares. But whatever the level of veracity in his public comments, Greenberg is utterly engaging as he makes them--and after laughing my way through two question-and-answer sessions with him, I'm ready to believe just about anything he says.

After all, no matter how the playwright spins it, the numbers don't lie: Greenberg has no fewer than five major productions at high-visibility venues this theatre season. Four of them are brand-new plays, and the fifth is a much-anticipated revival that will introduce Julia Roberts to the Broadway stage. Call this Greenberg's uberseason.

It began this past April with the premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, which was subsequently mounted on Broadway in October under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company. In New York, Doug Hughes--whose busy schedule also included helming Doubt, for which he won a Tony--directed the over-the-top comedy about a wealthy couple (played by Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas) whose three children surprise them with all sorts of shocking disclosures.

"I had admired him from afar for many years," says Hughes of the playwright, with whom he was working for the first time. The collaboration reminded him, Hughes says, of a memorable remark Holden Caulfield made in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "'What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.' That's exactly how I feel about Richard. He's that great to work with."

Fortunately for Hughes, Naked Girl--which earned mixed-to-hostile notices--is just part one of Hughes's season with Greenberg. He's set to direct the premiere of Greenberg's The House in Town at Lincoln Center Theater in May Hughes is hardly deterred by Naked Girl's less-than-delirious reception: "There is a place for frivolity in the theatre--and this play was deeply rooted in honest human anxiety," he believes. "Really great writers can occasionally do something beautiful and frothy with their left hand. Naked Girl was something that's fun to see. And I'm a great believer in having fun."

"Fun" is one of the words Terry Kinney uses to describe his experience directing Greenberg's second premiere of the season, The Well-Appointed Room, which opened in January at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and runs through March 12. The playwright himself tapped Kinney for Room, which features two sets of couples and their (possibly) interconnected stories, after seeing his production of The Violet Hour at Steppenwolf in 2003. Greenberg says he had Kinney in mind to direct when he wrote Room--to which Kinney rejoins, "Lucky me."

Kinney insists that since Greenberg eschews "big themes and grand concepts," it's his job as director "to dig out the universality of this play." What Room is about, the director says, is "how difficult it can be to stay in the present, given all the things out there working against you." He quotes Greenberg's own phrase "the excruciation of the present" to explain: "We're being told every day to prepare ourselves for the possibility our lives could end very violently and suddenly. Given that fact, why should we invest ourselves in nesting, in our ambitions, in planning for the future for ourselves or for our children? But there's every good reason to--and that's what Rich is ultimately saying."

Just as Room closes, the Broadway revival of one of Greenberg's most acclaimed plays, Three Days of Rain, begins previews, on March 28. Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper will share the stage with mega-star Julia Roberts. "She was just wonderful in the reading we had in Los Angeles," says the usually press-shy playwright, who's thrilled that Roberts's star power will deflect some of the attention away from himself.

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