The other morning, I’m sitting in my local diner with a couple who live in my building on New York’s Upper West Side. One of them is Elizabeth Winthrop (you might know her from her classic fantasy novel for young people, Castle in the Attic). The other, her husband, Jason Bosseau, was a founding member of the Performance Group and has acted and directed. The talk is of writing and theatre and politics.
I look at the booth across the aisle and notice Daniel Sullivan. He’s one of the best and most sought-after directors in town. (He directed Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and Glengarry Glen Ross and Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald in Twelfth Night, as well as most of Donald Margulies’s work.) I figure these folks should know each other. I make an introduction.
“Oh,” Elizabeth says, “you directed The Columnist.” Sullivan allows that he did. And Elizabeth says, “That was about my uncle and my father.” And indeed, John Lithgow and Boyd Gaines played Joseph and Stewart Alsop, brothers who, together and separately, were among the most influential political columnists of the fifties and sixties.
As I type this, I’m sitting in the lobby of the Signature Theatre. I’m working on a book about the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center, and I’ve come here to interview Skip Mercier, a designer who has had a long relationship with the O’Neill. As we sit together, out of the corner of my eye, I see Bill Irwin and David Shiner, both in top hats, emerge from one of the theaters and disappear down a hallway. A few minutes later, Skip gets a message and begs my pardon. Irwin and Shiner have a bit to rehearse for the new piece they’re putting up at the Signature, Old Hats. They need someone to play the person who is pulled out of the audience, and Skip has been drafted. He promises to be back in a few minutes.
Tonight, I see the first performance of a fifty-minute play called Human Resources. It’s an odd endeavor. The producing company, Artistic New Directions, a couple of years ago put up a play called The Rubber Room which was rehearsed with five different companies. Then, for each performance, a cast would be put together made up of one performer from each company. These people would not rehearse together. They would of course know their lines and the action of the play, but they would have to improvise blocking and forge spontaneous connections with people they had never met before. That experiment had been great fun for the actors, so the company decided to do it again, drafting my wife, Kristine Niven, to write a new play about four people waiting for a job interview under the eye of an officious receptionist. As it happens, Kristine has been rehearsing the role of the receptionist with one of the five companies. She will perform the part five times, each time with different people in the other roles.
Kristine began development of the play in an improvisational project I put together last summer at which a bunch of actors, improvisers, and writers met in a house in Connecticut for four hours daily to improvise on each other’s premises. One of the other people who was in that gang is the playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer. Deb is recently returned from the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park where her new play, Leveling Up just opened to terrific reviews.
Tomorrow night, I will return to the Signature Theatre to see David Henry Hwang’s Dance and the Railroad. I would take my wife, but she’s doing her play. I interviewed David for the book about the O’Neill Center. Come to think of it, I interviewed Deb about the O’Neill Center. Leveling Up was developed at the O’Neill. The director of the play (and the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill) is Wendy Goldberg. I interviewed Wendy last month.
Sometimes you need a scorecard.