Lee Sellars, Nathan M. White,and Patrick Boll in Buying Time(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Lee Sellars, Nathan M. White,
and Patrick Boll in Buying Time
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
An excellent candidate for the title of "Most Undervalued Contemporary American Playwright" is Michael Weller. Beloved of theatergoers for his plays Moonchildren, Fishing, Split, Loose Ends, Spoils of War, Lake No Bottom, and (just last season) The Heart of Art, Weller also provided the truly brilliant screenplay for Milos Forman's film version of the epoch-making rock musical Hair. But that film wasn't as successful as it deserved to be, and none of Weller's stage works have been translated to other media (with the exception of a TV movie of Spoils of War). All of which may explain why his name is less familiar than those of several less gifted but more aggressively marketed, more "commercial" playwrights.

At any rate, Weller is back on the boards with Buying Time, all about issues of conflict of interest and morality at a law firm. The play ran for a month in November-December 200 as presented by the Hypothetical Theatre Company at The New 14th Street Y, and has now reopened due to the buzz it caused. ("John Grisham meets Aesop," quoth a New York Times review of the production). Weller recently spoke with TheaterMania about his latest work, his current TV project, and the importance of giving a leg-up to young playwrights.

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TM: The premise of Buying Time is intriguing. What inspired you to write the play?

WELLER: The inspiration was a real event. I got one end of it when I was eavesdropping on one of my wife's phone calls to a friend whose husband was in a law firm that was going through this situation. Even hearing just the bits and pieces, it sounded really riveting. I contacted the guy, and one thing led to another; he told me a little about what was going on and invited me out to the firm.

TM: What did you hear that piqued your interest?

WELLER: A group of partners in the firm was up in arms about the fact that a major-money client was leaning on them to drop one of their pro bono cases, and it was causing some real moral agony. There were fights going on, passionate speeches made. Finally, there was a big showdown in the company where the more socially conscious side of the firm took everyone else to task for becoming a bunch of money-grubbing suits. I thought this was fascinating, because it has a kind of moral dimension that you don't often see so clearly outlined in real life.

TM: Why exactly was the big client pressuring the firm to drop the pro bono case?

WELLER: This got to be a rather deep and tangled question. The long and short of it is that there is, or was, this sort of conspiracy among what they call "The Extractive Mafia" out west. It was never acknowledged, but they all got together and systematically invaded the environmental firms; they gutted them from inside by giving them a lot of heavy-duty business that the firms started to depend on and then threatening to withdraw. These people--ranchers, loggers, miners--have very complicated deals with the government, and they have a vested interest in this huge profit margin they can garner by getting political favors, using public land, buying public water for about one-tenth of the cost. That's the context of the play, but I really wanted to tell the story of one imperfect lawyer caught at a complicated moment of his life when he has to make some difficult choices.

TM: The Heart of Art at Hypothetical Theatre was your last show in New York. Were you happy with the production?

WELLER: I loved it! I had a blast. It was sort of assaultive, but in a very benign way. I pushed the actors towards the kind of bigger-than-life portraits you don't get to see too much in the theater now--the kind of thing Charles Ludlam used to do.

TM: We spoke about that play when you were in the early stages of getting it produced. So, was it really about Joe Papp?

WELLER: Well, that was the talk of it. Certainly, the framework and the setup was a place like the Public Theater, but I was really taking aim at a whole ethos about theater that was around at a certain time. I thought it was kind of a valentine, myself--but other people didn't see it that way! I did one get very flattering reaction from someone who had been extremely close to Papp. I won't mention the person's name, but it was someone I was eager not to upset. This person said something very deep and funny about the play, but also said I would never get it produced within a 50-mile radius of New York City. And they were right--it was done on 14th Street!

TM: You've done some writing for Once and Again on ABC. Has that been keeping you in L.A.?

WELLER: No. I go out there maybe two days a year, maximum. I don't like driving. Actually, I'm developing my own show now; I kinda got the bug and I thought I'd like to write characters that I invented. I got aboard on Once and Again right after they did the pilot, because I thought the show was very sexy and interesting. Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick taught me the rules of writing for that kind of a show--how you think through an episode, all the stuff that I really didn't know. So I was in on the project from early on, but the characters themselves weren't mine. The new show I'm working on is called Just Like Home. The theme of it is modern family configurations. It's about how people today form domestic groupings in order to kind of seek safety with each other, so there are a lot of nontraditional family types in it.

TM: People say that a certain type of comedy no longer flies in the theater, particularly not on Broadway, because people get that kind of humor from TV sitcoms. I wonder, do you feel that a certain kind of drama is also thought to be more appropriate to television than to theater?

Michael Weller with Amy Feinberg,the director of Buying Time(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Michael Weller with Amy Feinberg,
the director of Buying Time
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
WELLER: Theater is hand-made goods. It's slow and expensive to produce, and you have to pay a lot of money to go to it. What keeps something vital is that it's accessible to ordinary people. If they have to pay all kinds of money for tickets, travel a long distance, then put up with cranky box-office people and tired ushers, that doesn't become a fun evening. When I go to Broadway, I feel like I'm running a gauntlet of really unhappy people to get to my seat. And I spend a tremendous amount of money to see stuff that I often feel has been ironed flat, so I don't really have any kind of shock of recognition. If you're asking me to spend so much money for an experience like that, I think, "Well, I could go to see Traffic for $9.50 and it would get me thinking about something. Or I could go to a Richard Foreman play and let something seep into me that I can't quite articulate." I can't think of a Broadway play in, say, the last 15 years that has startled me. I've been entertained to one degree or another, but one thing I like to see is a large social canvas, and that's not often portrayed in American plays. I've rarely seen something that had a real scope to it.

TM: Before we end, maybe you could talk to me about the mentoring project you're involved in.

WELLER: That's my favorite thing right now. It was started by Angelina Fiordellisi, Suzanne Brinkley, and myself at the Kaufman Theatre; now it's based at the Cherry Lane. Whenever I have a new play produced, particularly at a regional theater, I write to the literary department there and have them send me three new writers from the area that they think are ready for a professional experience, and I hire them as my assistants. They have to watch the whole rehearsal process from beginning to end, just to see what the professional conduct should be: when do you talk to actors, how do you address rewrites. I talked about this to Suzanne, and she thought it might be a very interesting thing to formalize.

TM: How does it work, in a nutshell?

WELLER: We put a seasoned playwright with a fellow, an emerging playwright who's ready for a professional step, and we give them a season together to develop one of the fellow's works from a cold reading to a production. We also spend quite a bit of time providing activities that network all of the fellows over the years. That's what the Public Theater was like for me; I met all the playwrights, because they worked there or drank across the street, and they were my support group. Our mentor project is meant to create that kind of ad hoc extended family, so that emerging writers can lean on each other.