Photo by Debra Lopez
In our era of practically mandatory multitasking – and, for that matter, free-floating financial insecurity — it is probably to be expected that more actors would try their hand at playwriting. In the past few months I’ve reviewed three new plays by established actors, at three of the city’s significant nonprofit theaters. I can’t recall another similar flurry in the more than a dozen years I’ve been reviewing.
There are lots of reasons why actors might want to flex new muscles, trying their hand at creating their own characters instead of interpreting ones created by others. In an interview in American Theater magazine, Bruce Norris, the actor-turned-writer-turned-Pulitzer Prize winner for “Clybourne Park,” pointed to this impulse as the motivation behind his desire to switch tracks: “I wanted to be able to express what I thought, rather than be the vehicle for the expressions of someone else’s thoughts.”
Actors turning to writing is a time-honored tradition, of course. Shakespeare was the most spectacularly successful actor-writer in theater history. Eugene O’Neill made a few halfhearted attempts at following in his actor father’s footsteps before heading off on the long journey that would eventually result in some of the American theater’s greatest plays. Two of the most successful playwrights in 20th-century Britain, Noël Coward and Harold Pinter, began their careers as actors.
In their training, in the rehearsal room and onstage, actors can naturally acquire an instinct for playable dialogue, the convincing flow of dramatic incident and the way action and speech can naturally be combined to reveal a character’s emotional innards. Actors can learn from audience reactions what works and what doesn’t; they know firsthand when a line is overwritten or a bit of business is failing to register because they are the ones who feel the impact in the moment itself. Appearing in plays both good and bad can be a fine apprenticeship in how to write and how not to write a play, at least for actors who can see beyond the limits of their own lines. (And, to be sure, there are many actors who probably never do.)
Recent history also would provide some inspiration: In the past five years the Pulitzer Prize – the most prestigious seal of approval in the theater world – has been awarded to two plays written by former (or current) actors: Mr. Norris’s cleverly bifurcated play about race, class and real estate and Tracy Letts’s rip-roaring family drama “August: Osage County.” An enterprising actor, bored with sitting around the movie set or demoralized from weary rounds of auditions, might easily look to their examples and wonder, hey, why not me?
The three shows I’ve seen recently that have been written by actors would have to be classified as long shots for the Pulitzer Prize, or perhaps any prize. Each had some merit and suggested that the authors may in the future become writing talents worth watching. But I also wondered whether the plays’ flaws might have kept them in the literary manager’s one-more-rewrite pile if their authors had not been actors with some public name value.
Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesJustin Bartha and Krysten Ritter in “All New People.”
Zach Braff’s “All New People,” seen at Second Stage Theater in the late summer, was a concept-driven comedy about a would-be suicide (Justin Bartha) whose attempt to hang himself at a friend’s beach house on the Jersey Shore is rudely interrupted. Mr. Braff presumably learned a lot about the rhythms of comedy during his stint as a performer on the zany-doctors sitcom “Scrubs.” His play was amply stocked in sharp-witted one-liners delivered by characters who might easily turn up on serial television comedy: a daffy British realtor, a fireman with a sideline in selling drugs, a comely call girl.
But while it provided a lot more laughs than many so-called comedies written by established playwrights that I’ve seen in my years as a critic, “All New People” also evinced a common failing of neophyte writers. The peg on which the plot hung – that interrupted suicide – came to seem flimsy as the motivations for the characters’ behavior became less and less logical. Getting people on and offstage for reasons that derive rationally from character and circumstance is harder than it seems, and Mr. Braff’s play eventually felt a little too much like a random chatfest – funny as it was – that predictably evolved into a drink-fueled series of revelations, that classically hoary device.
It’s probably to be expected that actors, when writing, would find themselves drawing on conventional situations and ideas they have come across in their training and careers. It’s equally to be expected that the old axiom “write what you know” would play a role in the first efforts of actors turned writers.
That was certainly the case with Zoe Kazan’s first play, “Absalom,”which I reviewed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays a couple of years ago. Ms. Kazan’s play, among the better at the festival that year, was a Chekhovian comedy-drama about the relationships among an artsy family in the Berkshires. Ms. Kazan is the daughter of screenwriters and the granddaughter of the great stage and film director Elia Kazan. The people in “Absalom,” with their sophisticated interests and high-end neuroses, were the kind of intelligentsia among whom Ms. Kazan has presumably lived much of her life.
That was also the case with her new play, “We Live Here,” finishing its run this weekend in a Manhattan Theater Club production. Also set in a comfortable country house in New England, it too told of the relationships among a well-heeled family of highbrow interests: pater is a professor whose specialty is Aristotle, and one of the daughters is a composer studying at Juilliard.
Yet “We Live Here” featured scenes that dwindled into pointlessness or ended too abruptly, and characters too stridently conceived to come across as convincingly human. The impulse to provide actors with angst-stuffed people to embody might come a little too naturally to actors, who themselves know how delicious it can be to tackle a troubled character.
Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesBetty Gilpin and Oscar Isaac in “We Live Here.”
In “Asuncion,” now at the Cherry Lane Theater in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, Jesse Eisenberg revealed an affinity for creating characters with a more real human blush about them. He seems to have drawn some inspiration for his own character, a hapless slacker named Edgar, from his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” The characters share a motor mouth and a jittery intensity, but Edgar’s got no gas in his engine – he can’t get up off the beanbag chair to forge a life for himself.
Mr. Eisenberg’s play, like Mr. Braff’s, benefited from skillfully wrought humor as well as an appealing role for Mr. Bartha (again!) as Edgar’s best friend and semi-unwilling roommate. But as in “All New People,” the central device driving “Asuncion” was forced: the play’s title character, Edgar’s new sister-in-law, was essentially parked in the living room the young men shared for reasons too unlikely to describe, and left there for an implausibly long time to serve as a spark for tensions between Mr. Eisenberg’s and Mr. Bartha’s characters.
The trend, if trend it becomes, of name actors making waves as writers for the New York theater does raise potentially troubling questions. Are producers and artistic directors intentionally (or unconsciously) trying to exploit the authors’ notoriety as actors to attract audiences to plays that they might not produce if they were written by unknowns?
Of the three actor-writers I’ve mentioned, only Mr. Eisenberg appeared in his own play – and, as I noted in my review, he played the most unappealing role. But a play written by a Zach Braff or a Zoe Kazan is probably going to attract more media attention than a similarly scaled effort by an author whose name has never appeared in a gossip column or on a movie theater marquee. Certainly I heard some grumblings among my critical colleagues at the decision by Manhattan Theater Club to give a prime slot in its season, and a first-class production directed by the hot director Sam Gold, to Ms. Kazan’s play, which would probably have benefited from some more diligent dramaturgy and another rewrite or two.
I hope all three of the playwrights I’ve discussed keep writing – and I’ve no objection to seeing any of their brethren join the club – but the commercial theater is already unhappily encumbered by the pressures of celebrity. I would hate to see the not-for-profit theaters, where most new playwrights first get their breaks, start turning their stages over to marginal plays that stand out from the pack only because the playwright’s name might sell a few tickets to fan club members.
by Charles Isherwood
April Yvette Thompson