Sep 22, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 498: Ben Rosenthal
Hometown: White Plains - site of a famous losing battle in the Revolutionary War.
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about Neptune Kelly
A: A formerly mouth-breathing, kind of savantish auto mechanic develops a messiah complex and believes that one can place all their wretchedness in their foot and cut it off. Then they'll be free. He does so, with an axe, to both his feet, and soon young girls from the high school start following. The cutting spreads like wildfire and no one knows how to stop it. A famous psychiatrist -or as famous as they do get - is called to the town and eventually does battle with their local priest, who is likewise completely flummoxed by the mania. It's a very dark comedy and there's a cast to rival the size of the Russian army.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I'm working on several plays, one of which is sort of an omnibus pageant of doom, and that's the most I can say about it but the rest are a lot more naturalistic. Theater demands that you get small these days and I would like to write a chamber piece about couples over dinner and see how that turns out. Romulus Linney told me to write about my family years ago, when I was at school, and I've yet to directly heed that advice. Maybe I fear lawsuits?
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I've blocked out most of my childhood, but what I remember doesn't point with blinking arrows towards a writing career. Except for the heavy drinking and philandering, which started when I was six.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: A fellow playwright said to me recently that theater is always forty years behind the other mediums. I agree but I think that's a conservative estimate. We've all heard the very accurate complaints that there are innumerable "development" purgatories and very few production slots, but the money's never going to be there, so theater should make its peace with that and not try and play to the room-temperature sensibilities that would probably reject much of what is in the modern canon if they saw it anyway... So long as it does that it'll keep itself mildly solvent but cease to matter in any real way. That's why we have the regimented mediocrity we have. That and the fact that mediocrity is often the result when five years of "work-shopping" and spiritual exhaustion and a spike in a theater's artistic budget combine. It's like Hollywood in that sense; it's a miracle anything organic survives sometimes.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: When I started it was Harold Pinter and to some degree it still is. I really think he's a genius in that there's a conceptual clarity to his plays but they don't feel academic or like intellectual exercises, because he wrote intuitively. It's that magic some great novelists have - to walk that high wire where every line pulses with the theme but you are still tracking real people in real time, and you're kind of terrified of where it's going because the author is a little crazy. There's a writer more people should know about named David Lefort Nugent who absolutely blows me away. Carson Kreitzer is so very gifted and she has a great precision, a kind of spare discipline where her plays sneak up on you. I think Lloyd Suh is truly remarkable and there's a scene in American Hwangap that is so brilliantly loaded and yet unforced and I remember watching it and thinking, this is a kind of valedictory moment for a writer. How do I get here? It's not the kind of thing that can be coached or taught.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I know the stock answer here is probably "dangerous" theater, but that means different things to different people.
I want theater to be an expression of something personal, not by-the-numbers liberalism where one cherry picks a societal trend and writes ninety or so minute of stage time about them, having mathematically considered what will not be offensive. If you were to read most playwrights on blind submission, could you tell them apart? Would you know who they were? Crazy, dangerous things happen on some of the better cable TV shows, because the creators of these shows have risked something personal, and the fiber optic distance of television allows people to watch them without shitting the bed. I think so long as we're seeing the writer bare something about themselves, we'll feel something relevant has happened. The preface to Gide's The Immoralist basically says I'm going to make you sick, but there's poetry in that, so shove it. It's not about making people sick, which I think might be fairly easy, but I think presenting work which comes from a propulsive place instead of a studied or schematic one. More of that would be helpful.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I can't speak much to career advice, but no one's ever going to make it the way they think they're going to make it unless they're total hacks - in which case writing is algorithmic and why bother, so the only thing I would say is get yourself around other writers, even if it's painful and you're worried about losing the thread of yourself. For a playwright, especially one who is gifted with a personal approach, or whatever a "voice" is, being reminded of how much theater is about being present and engaged, is vitally important, otherwise, your work can calcify; you end up with black ciphers on a white page, not a living entity. It's too easy to disappear somewhere up your own fundament if you're not around other living writers..I would also say do what Saul Bellow did and double down on what you do after a rejection. Most people who are going to read your plays won't get them, and to be honest, there's no ultimate benediction. If Kenneth Tynan came back from the dead to write that I was good, would I believe it? Would my work be done? I'd probably get a swell head for a week and then be back tearing my hair out and diminishing Kenneth Tynan as a toff who liked to paddle fannies.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Come see Neptune Kelly at Ensemble Studio Theatre September 27th at 7pm and 28th at 8pm. It's a blast.