About the author:
There’s no question about it: Everybody wants a piece of Richard Greenberg right now. The Tony-winning writer of more than 25 plays has three major productions premiering on and off Broadway this spring. Greenberg's new play The Assembled Parties, starring Judith Light, Jessica Hecht and Jeremy Shamos, begins performances on March 26 at the Friedman Theatre, less than a week after his adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's opened at the Cort Theatre and seven weeks before the musical Far From Heaven, with a book by Greenberg, gets its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, starring Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale. (Got all that?) The Assembled Parties continues Greenberg's long association with Manhattan Theatre Club, debuting 10 years after The Violet Hour opened the refurbished Friedman Theatre. The crazy busy playwright kindly agreed to take time to write about the genesis of the play, which centers on an Upper West Side Jewish family in 1980 and 2000.
Years ago, I saw a play that was beautifully written, superbly acted and hell to sit through.
It started with a character announcing that nothing was going to happen. Then she rattled off a list of examples of what wouldn't be happening; they were the sorts of interesting-sounding things that typically happen in plays in which things happen.
It was easy enough for me to figure out why I was having such a terrible time: Nothing was happening. But to keep from hyperventilating, I started to wonder about things other than the play as it was refusing to unfold. One of these was whether, given the fine acting and beautiful writing—by this I mean beautiful sentences; it was a parade of lovely, inert sentences—were there conditions under which I could watch this play without wanting to kill myself?
The answer was yes and came quite easily: I would be fine if I could walk around.
Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends came to mind, though not perhaps aptly, as things happen in Fefu and Her Friends. Still, it seemed to me that if these scenes to which I was being subjected were enacted in, say, a house that I could wander through, pausing and listening at will, I might have had a tolerable, even a delightful experience.
This made me ponder (because, trust me, there was still a lot of time to kill) the conditions under which we traditionally watch plays: crammed into uncomfortable seats, plunged into darkness, enjoined to remain silent, and suffering censure if we protest in any way.
Clearly, what going to the theater most closely resembled was a hostage situation, and this explained the extremity of my reaction. The enforced stillness of my role as an audience member created in me an anxiety for action. It seemed plausible to posit this as a law: Because the audience cannot move, the play must.
I believe this is why when we hate a play, we hate it so much more desperately than we do a movie or a novel or a painting. When we watch a play under the standard circumstances, we've lost volition and time is passing. A still play feels like an existential threat. Arguably, the story under the story of every play is just that: Time is passing. The master playwrights of the 20th century—Chekhov, Strindberg, Beckett, add who you will—were superb at exploiting the theater's potential to excruciate time.
In a way, the bad evening at the play that traveled at the speed of stop helped me understand why I write plays: I've always been obsessed with time—not in a profound way, but with what it feels like. There's a game I play with myself—or maybe it's a disorder. This is how it goes:
I think “When as much time passes as has passed since (some year that I remember well), I will be (_____) years old.” It's been especially interesting since the answer started so often to come up “dead.”
My new play, The Assembled Parties, is set on two Christmases, 1980 and 2000. It's anti-Aristotelian, reveling in disunities of time and action—though it's pretty good about place. The idea of a rupture between acts occurs in a number of my plays. It's a method I can trace back to the event that had a formative influence on my sensibility: a PBS pledge drive. I'll explain.
When I was a little kid, there was a black-and-white, videotaped miniseries from England based on John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. Shown here, it was a sensation, the thing that turned PBS into Britain's last colonial outpost in the U.S.
I liked it at the time. It was filled with chuffy English acting and the young Susan Hampshire, and I was an annoying premature Anglophile (that faded). What was not to like?
A decade or so later, in an effort to drum up money, the series was rerun as a marathon. I think it went a solid day. I was visiting home from one university or another and I found myself checking in at irregular intervals. A baby would be born. I'd rake some leaves. When I returned, 20 years had gone by and that baby had just been killed in The Great War. I watched the whole series that way.
It was devastating.
I'm not even sure if I'd thought of writing plays yet, but I felt I wanted to create an impact like the one this partial, stertorous viewing of The Forsyte Saga had had on me.
Viewed in that accelerated and gapped way, the series accorded precisely with my newly kindled (I was in my early twenties) sense of reality: Time was implacable, events whizzed by, and I didn't have all the information.
In the first act of The Assembled Parties, Santo Loquasto's set—a vast apartment on the Upper West Side—spins from room-to-room. In each room, something happens that is or isn't or sort-of-is related to what happens in the other rooms. Families of good will (they exist) are failed attempts at a common pursuit. I've written the play so that the audience possesses the information, the characters don't completely. Twenty years pass in the blink of an intermission and all the wisdom, care and anxiety of the first act seem to have been misapplied; what's been prepared for is not what's happened. Everyone tries to adjust.
And time remains implacable.