Long, long ago in the era before the dawn of Trump, I ran a theater company in Chicago where I developed an infatuation with the plays of Richard Greenberg. I first encountered his work on his adaptation of Laurie Colwin’s story “Ask Me Again” on PBS’s “American Playhouse.” There was something so charming, smart and effervescent about the way he wrote. He called to mind an old New York, populated by sharp-witted writers like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Philip Barry.
I wanted to produce one of Greenberg’s plays, so a few of us got in a car and ventured out to Highland Park, Illinois, where a theater company called Apple Tree was putting on the Midwest premiere of Greenberg’s romantic comedy “Eastern Standard” about two couples — one gay, one straight. The dialogue crackled throughout, the play seemed beautifully structured and yet, at the end of it, something seemed to be missing. We enjoyed a light evening of theater, but even though the play touched on AIDS and homelessness, it didn’t seem to matter as much as it should have. I remember, after a long silence, one of the actors in our group turned to the rest of us and said, “Well, that was certainly very mildly amusing.”
From time to time, we would get together at my apartment to discuss plays, and we read through a number of Greenberg works — “The Maderati,” “Life Under Water” and “The Author’s Voice.” Each time, we had a similar reaction. The writing was exquisite, the language brilliant and yet, something seemed lacking, some feeling of consequence.
Greenberg has become one of the most lauded playwrights of his generation — a Tony Award winner for “Take Me Out,” a Tony nominee for “The Assembled Parties” and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, for “Three Days of Rain” and “Take Me Out.” But even in some of his finest work (my personal favorite is “The American Plan”), there can still be a nagging sense of the inconsequential.
It has taken me years to realize that this is actually both the charm and the strength of Greenberg’s plays, which often concern characters who have been born either too late or too early, but in either event, are not quite suited to their times. Greenberg is a master of small moments, of characters all too aware of their insignificance and imminent obsolescence. This theme runs through Greenberg’s latest works: “Rules for Others To Live By,” a delightful new collection of bedside essays, and “The Babylon Line,” a lyrical and writerly memory play which concerns the students of a continuing education writing class, circa 1967. It opens December 5 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.
I finally met Greenberg at a Chelsea diner, which is one of the playwright’s favorite haunts. And our interview took place at a quintessentially Greenberg-ian time, one destined to become extremely outdated extremely quickly. In this case, it was the day after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and a week before Donald J. Trump would be elected president.
As if to underscore the ephemerality of the moment, we took our seats at a booth where a colorful scarecrow had been painted for Halloween. Midway through our conversation, a worker came by to wipe away the scarecrow to make way for the next holiday decoration.
“Oh, look at that,” Greenberg said as he watched the scarecrow disappear. “The holiday’s over; I’ve never seen that before. Ohhhh, I’ve never seen that. That was quite a moment.”
The following is an edited version of our conversation (I cut the part where we ordered food and coffee and where we talked about the smoked fish at Murray’s and the Chinese food at Shun Lee West, which he likes and I find kind of yucky).
Adam Langer: So, I happen to be meeting you at a really weird time in America
Richard Greenberg: I know.
AL: I mean, I’m talking about politics but baseball too.
RG: I know. In my mind, I’m all jumbled.
AL: So, the Cubs won yesterday. I’m from Chicago, so maybe this isn’t as big a deal to you as it is to me.
RG: No, it was a big deal to me too. I have one friend from Cleveland and multitudes from Chicago and of course it is the bigger deal because Cleveland has shown up in the modern era. They’ve at least gotten to the series.
AL: Were you watching until midnight?
RG: You know, I wasn’t. I’m not a fan of Aroldis Chapman.
AL: Yeah, right? Him being there kind of ruins everything.
RG: First of all, he shot up his garage before the Yankees acquired him. So, when we acquired him, I thought, “Oh, this is the guy who shot up his garage with his girlfriend in the house,” so I didn’t like him to begin with. I’m sorry, there’s a minimum level for me to find you root-able, and you don’t reach that level if you shoot up your garage while your girlfriend is in the house, so I don’t like him for that reason.
And then last night, he blew the save, and I stopped watching.
AL: The moment where he blew the save, it seemed like some kind of cosmic justice was happening in the world, some kind of karma.
RG: But did he get the win?
AL: He did.
RG: I think there should be a rule against that. If you blow the save, you should not be permitted to get the win. I just think that’s wrong. I’m sorry; I’m opposed. Don’t get me started. I have enough trouble sleeping already.
AL: Is the not sleeping an always thing or just an election-time thing?
RG: It’s an always thing, but it’s worse. And I’ve found myself almost willing myself to be uninformed because then I won’t sleep at all, and I think that has really direct health consequences. This is the most anxious about an election I can remember being.
AL: Do you feel a certain sense of relief knowing that, whatever happens in the election, you have a play opening soon? So, you’ll have that release or that escape?
RG: But then I find myself wondering “What am I doing here? Can I still live in this country?” It’s a very odd week. It’s an odd, tense week.
AL: Where would you go?
RG: I don’t know. I don’t even like leaving my apartment, so how would I uproot myself? And also, what country is unaffected? I think I would move to Brigadoon or Shangri-La.
AL: Canada is nice.
RG: Is Canada nice? I don’t think I’ve been in Canada since you didn’t need a passport to get in there. My parents would drive and you wouldn’t have to show anything at the border.
AL: Your parents show up in your book a little bit. Your father was a film executive of some sort?
RG: No. On Long Island, there was a chain of movie theaters, a big chain, and he was an executive for them.
AL: Were there perks?
RG: Well, you got in for free.
AL: But it wasn’t like a revival house where you got to see old movies that inspired you; you just got to see whatever was popular?
RG: And there was also embarrassment because if the movie was successful, there would be lines and you’d have to walk past the lines and walk in and everyone would look at you.
AL: Did you get to cut the line at “Star Wars?”
RG: No, this would have been before that.
AL: “I Am Curious Yellow”?
RG: No, I don’t think they were showing that in the malls of Long Island.
AL: I’m not sure about that. I remember my parents seeing “Emmanuelle” in the Lincoln Village mall just outside Chicago.
RG: Are you serious? I don’t think we had that. But I don’t think I paid for a movie until “The Exorcist” because it wasn’t playing at one of our theaters. And I remember, the friend I went with, she said she thought the reason why people couldn’t eat after seeing “The Exorcist” was that their stomachs hurt from laughing so hard. Because none of us were scared, but we all thought it was ridiculous.
AL: Maybe you’re parents just told you they couldn’t get you a free ticket so you wouldn’t see the film.
RG: I don’t know. I do remember that we didn’t get to see “Carnal Knowledge.”
AL: Which my parents also saw at the mall.
RG: I remember my dad turned around and he wouldn’t take us in to see it. But movies were so harsh back then. I saw “Joe” and “Drive, He Said,” and they sort of left you incapacitated at the end, and they were pretty explicit in their own way.
AL: Are you going to be in rehearsal on election night?
RG: I don’t know. I think it might be a dress rehearsal. I remember being in a dress rehearsal the day after Obama got elected and all anyone was talking about was the cues. The show does go on, doesn’t it?
AL: It’s kind of a lovely world to live in.
RG: I guess. It has its exigencies. I remember doing a play at Lincoln Center. I was doing two plays during 9/11 and one of them was at Lincoln Center. Someone determined that Lincoln Center was number five on the terrorist hit list. I don’t know who came up with that list. But I remember feeling very, very secure there in that theater.
AL: In your book you mention that, when people tell you they like a work of yours that you’re unhappy with, that makes you unhappy. So, I’m not sure if I should tell you that my first encounter with your work, which I really liked, was “Ask Me Again,” on American Playhouse.
AL: Yeah, do you cringe when you hear about that play?
RG: No, it’s all right. I was young. I think it was sort of charming. It was not aiming very high. Back then, I still read reviews. I think I had about another year or month of reading reviews and then I was done.
AL: Was there a specific trigger where you said, “OK, no way. Not reading these reviews anymore?”
RG: It wasn’t a review; it was an experience. Years ago, I wrote a play called “Eastern Standard.” It got one of the most divided responses of anything I’d done. And back then, I was still young enough to think that maybe I wanted to be famous. And that’s when I realized that it didn’t suit me and I didn’t want to be public. And I was just too vulnerable, so I stopped reading.
AL: Was it a “Richard Greenberg Is the Hot New Thing” kind of a thing?
RG: No, it was a “Richard Greenberg Should Be Killed” sort of a thing. I didn’t mind the “Hot New Thing” so much back then. Now I mind all of it. Recently, I’ve mostly stopped reading other people’s reviews. I like reading reviews of dance because I know nothing at all about dance. It’s almost like reading in a foreign language or at least Esperanto because I don’t have the vocabulary. I read Alistair Macaulay [The New York Times’s dance critic].
AL: Did he call anybody fat recently?
RG: He did that years ago.
AL: There’s a point in just about every interview the Forward conducts where the person being interviewed will say, “Oh, my grandfather used to read it.” Did the Greenberg family fall into that category?
RG: Parts of it did. My father was one of seven children and I would say that he was the part that didn’t. But his older brother and his older brother’s wife, they were at City College in the 1930s. My family practiced culture erasure. Their attitude was “the past was very hard, so now let’s live here in the suburbs.”
AL: So, what were the new cultural rituals that replaced the old ones?
RG: There weren’t any. I didn’t realize until I was much older that Passover had a service attached to it. I didn’t realize that people read from a book. I thought it was just Thanksgiving where the food was different. My mother was a classic “Maude” liberal.
AL: “Maude” as in the TV show?
RG: Not that personality, but that point of view. Just unquestioning Democrat. But my father never spoke up on the subject. It’s interesting how families could divide so radically without being divided. I found my uncle and my aunt very interesting, but I think my interest might have been more because I found them dramatic than because I was interested in the politics. I don’t know that I went off and read Marx, but I found it interesting to think of them at City College taking part in marches and now being quiet and furtive.
AL: So, you were seeing them as characters in a way?
RG: Was I? If I was, I didn’t know it, but I found them interesting. Maybe that’s the beginning of seeing someone as a character as opposed to someone having a direct effect on your life. I just wanted to hear their stories.
AL: Is becoming captivated in people’s stories a common theme in your life?
RG: Oh, yeah. Sure. I like to listen. I don’t have that much of a history myself. I read books, I went to school, I worked in the theater — but then there were people who actually did things, and I was fascinated by what they had to say. I’m also fascinated by happy families.
AL: Know a lot of those?
RG: You know, I don’t. And maybe that’s why I find them so fascinating.
AL: How are you feeling about “The Babylon Line” ?
RG: I’m having a wonderful time, and I’m going to more rehearsals than I have in recent years. It’s very lucky to assemble a company of seven actors and feel that they’re all right. Not “all right,” but all of them are right.
AL: In “Rules for Others to Live By,” you speak in a sort of nostalgic tone of when art openings for films and plays meant more than they seem to now. Approaching opening night, do you have diminished expectations because of what a cultural product can actually mean or accomplish today?
RG: I’m sure I do. But the separate issue is that I just decided that it’s good not to have expectations. I have diminished expectations because I’ve decided not to expect anything. When you start out, you think that every production is going to change your life. I no longer think anything that happens is going to change my life. I hope that enough things will go well enough that it will aid my solvency. But separately, yeah — how do we even talk about what the relevant value is of anything when everything is changing so quickly? I know that more and more, I am valuing live-ness. The more people come at me with all the technology that’s possible in a play, the more I find myself saying,
“Can’t we do the whole thing by candlelight?” I don’t know if that’s backward or preservative or what.
AL: Do you feel a certain nostalgia for candlelight and so-called simpler times? Is that why you so often set plays in the past?
RG: I like the past because it’s hard to grasp the present. The past you can reflect on — obviously, it’s changing all the time too, but at a different rate and in a different way. I don’t set them in the past because of a longing to live there, but I’m interested in it.
AL: We seem to be at a time where the 60s seem particularly relevant. Recently, we’ve seen Woody Allen’s Amazon series and the abysmal adaptation of “American Pastoral.”
RG: I haven’t seen it. Is it abysmal? Because the headline of the review you wrote said “mediocre.”
AL: Well, that was the headline, but the movie’s terrible.
RG: I love that novel, and so I had never any intention of seeing it. Ewan McGregor seems miscast. He was always a surprisingly sexy nerd or dweeb; he’s not the Jew who looks like a God.
AL: Well, he kind of cast himself as the Jewish John-Boy Walton.
RG: That’s wrong. That’s a great book; you should leave it alone.
AL: And the Woody Allen series?
RG: I haven’t seen it, but it didn’t sound promising. After Woody got the deal, he kept giving interviews about how he had no idea what to do.
AL: At least Elaine May is in it. I had high hopes for Elaine May in it.
RG: Oh, I love Elaine May.
AL: So, what are you reading or watching these days?
RG: I think I finally realized that, like everyone in my family, I have ADD. I thought I was the only one who didn’t, but I think I do. So I don’t cleave to a cable series or a Netflix Series.
AL: You might be in the middle of reading a book, though.
RG: You know, because I’m in the middle of working on stuff, I can’t read anything that serious. I’m reading mostly mysteries, and when I want to go to sleep, I always re-read my Maeve Brennan, which is my Bible. But I don’t know what I’m going to be reading next. The fifth volume of Karl Ove [Knausgaard] has been staring at me for a long time on my bookshelf.
AL: That’s not the lightweight material that’s going to get you to sleep.
RG: But I haven’t started it yet. I read the first four quite easily. Have you been through them?
AL: I’ve been through one; you’re three ahead of me.
RG: I think a lot of people think of them as a Netflix series, but a Netflix series for people who prefer to read. I don’t feel that way about them, but they go down easily.
AL: I sort of felt that way about the Elena Ferrante series — the Neapolitan novels.
RG: Yesterday, I was talking to one of the understudies in my play, and we were talking about Karl Ove and she had only read the first one and then she said, “Have you read Elena Ferrante?” Is it great?
AL: It is. And maybe this is related to the torrential period you’re talking about, but it was something that I found difficult to read on the page, but when I read it on the phone, the pages whipped by. For some reason, it struck me as a completely different experience.
AL: Yes, better.
RG: On your phone?
AL: Yeah, it was odd.
RG: That is odd. OK, I’m going to order the first Ferrante book. Do you think we’d have a scandal if someone was writing anonymously like she was? Do you think people would care?
AL: If it turned out you were writing under the name Philip Roth, that would be interesting.
RG: I would be interested in that, but would people raise hell about it? Would they say, “How dare you violate this woman’s privacy?”
AL: Well, have you seen “Author” — the documentary about JT LeRoy?
RG: But that’s a different situation. What I’m wondering is if we have a sense that people have the right to their privacy.
AL: You’re able to live a fairly private, reclusive life.
RG: Yes, but nobody’s interested. It’s a different thing. If you’ve written a series of books that are among the most acclaimed novels of the time, and you just really don’t want to cop to who you are and you’re busted, do you think that there would be a huge hew and cry about it in America?
AL: I think it’s harder and harder to do. J.K. Rowling tried it. She wrote her novels as Robert Galbraith and that didn’t last long. Most people could be anonymous because they’re more or less anonymous anyway and nobody cares. Have you ever written under a pseudonym?
RG: Once. I wrote a play with a friend. We did a one-act monologue and we did it together and took parts of our names and anagrammatized them. I don’t know why we did that.
AL: Maybe for fun?
RG: Maybe, yeah. Maybe it was just fun.
AL: You mention that you hope the play will make certain financial things possible for you. So, is there something you want for Hanukkah?
RG: No, it’s not that. I just have a dream of supporting myself and continuing to support myself.
AL: You don’t have your eye on anything in particular? You don’t want to be able to buy yourself a convertible?
RG: I have an eye on continuing to live as I live without feeling panicked that I’m not going to be able to. I really don’t. It would be lovely in theory to have a small house with a garden. But people who have one tell you the reality is sure hell because the pipes are always busting in the middle of the night. I have the desire to be free of the anxiety about money, but I think we all have that.
AL: So it sounds like you’re somewhat content with where you are in your life.
RG: Oh, I don’t want to change or elevate my style of life. I don’t really want that at all. There are moments, we all have them, where in the middle of the night, you think “What am I gonna do? Maybe I have to leave my apartment.” And that’s the only thing I want — not to have that.
AL: Has the panic dissipated over the years or is it what motivates you?
RG: Not over the years. It dissipates when suddenly I have a little more money than I realize I had and that I’m not gonna be out on the street the next month. And when that happens, I think, “Oh, that’s all right.” And yes, I will buy that book I want. That’s what I want. I buy a lot of books and I want to feel that I can do that freely. It wouldn’t suit me to be famous, and I don’t think that I’m adaptive to the things that money buys. Travel the world? That gives me too much anxiety.
AL: Is your anxiety what helps you to create more plays?
RG: No, anxiety just buoys me along through my days.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”