About the Author:
Playwright David Auburn picked up a Best Play Tony and Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Proof, his emotionally resonant examination of mathematics and mental illness, but in his latest project, The New York Idea, Auburn finds himself in much more lighthearted territory. Sprucing up a rarely seen 1906 Langdon Mitchell comedy, Auburn breathes new life into the story of a pair of divorced couples in Greenwich Village and their attempts to find love and happiness with different partners. Below, the playwright recounts what attracted him to this screwball-esque comedy (now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in a production mounted by Atlantic Theater Company), and reveals the exciting process of adapting an old play for a modern audience.
When the Atlantic Theater asked me to take a look at The New York Idea, a 1906 comedy by Langdon Mitchell, with the possibility of revising it for a new production, I was intrigued. I’d never heard of the play, which has almost never been revived since its debut. But a little research revealed that it had been a sensation in its day. A comedy of manners from New York’s first gilded age, its frank treatment of divorce among what we now think of as the Edith Wharton set knocked the town on its ear.
Its two female leads were particularly striking: Cynthia, the horse-obsessed heroine, and Vida, a social tornado with the soul of an anarchist. Each iconoclasts, and very funny; great roles for actors. And Mitchell’s world was vivid dramatically too: a milieu of rigid, rule-bound conformity, but one in which the code governing marriage and sex was suddenly in flux, throwing everything into chaos. Yet the play was also extremely long, somewhat unwieldy, and awkwardly plotted. Would it be possible to make something both new and old, true to the period but also speaking to contemporary audiences?
I broke down the original play, looked at the individual pieces like a puzzle. I took most of Mitchell’s characters and situations, added a few of my own, and built up a new script.
Coming up with a consistent voice was relatively easy. The harder part was the theme. Mitchell felt he had written a polemic about the dangers of easily available divorce; make it too easy, the play says, and flighty and impulsive people (especially women) have nothing to restrain their worst impulses. That didn’t interest me much. I tried to ground my version more solidly in the conflict between the central couple, Cynthia and John. And I looked for ways to underline the instability of everyone in the play—all the characters are scrambling to either hide from or keep up with the changing times, or to stay a step ahead of financial ruin.
An unexpected pleasure of doing the adaptation was getting to work in a different theatrical mode. Writing for 12 characters, for maids and butlers—when does a 21st century playwright get to write “curtain” knowing that an actual curtain will fall? I was also able to try out a more heightened, stylized language than I normally would employ. Vida, who speaks in epigrams and revels in her own superficiality, was particular fun to write. Minimal subtext, I decided when I started the job. These characters mostly say what they mean and do what they say. The comedy comes from their self-awareness and their explicitness about their own desires and insecurities.
Above all, I wanted the play to be fun. Fun to write, fun for the performers and for the audience. I wanted it to give pleasure. I knew the play would be produced during the winter, and I imagined this bright, enjoyable thing glowing in the depths of a New York January. And that’s how The New York Idea has turned out.
If Langdon Mitchell showed up at the Lortel tomorrow, I’d pray he wouldn’t resent too much the liberties I’ve taken with his text. And I’d hope he’d take some satisfaction in knowing that his play is still being performed, more than a century on, in the city that gives it its name.