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Craig's List

Playwright Craig Lucas has two world premieres in June -- one in New York and one in Seattle.

By New York City
Craig Lucas
Craig Lucas
It's rare for a playwright to miss the world premiere of one his works, but Craig Lucas has a good excuse. While his monologue "Your Call Is Important" is getting its first public airing on June 12 at Chashama as part of Circle East Theater's First Light: A Festival of New Plays, he will be 3,000 miles away.

Specifically, Lucas -- the author of such celebrated works as Prelude to A Kiss and Longtime Companion -- will be at Seattle's Intiman Theater overseeing one of the final previews of The Light in the Piazza, the highly anticipated new musical by Adam Guettel, for which he has written the book and is directing.

While that project has long been on Lucas' calendar, the "Your Call Is Important" premiere is a relatively new development. In fact, Lucas admits he forgot all about the monologue -- which focuses on a woman whose life is falling apart and gets a bit carried away with road rage -- until he got a call from Circle East's Paul Knox asking for a contribution to the 17-day festival.

"Believe it or not, I wrote it for Stephen Sondheim," says Lucas. "At one point, when Bounce (his new musical) was in limbo, he was thinking of doing a Talking Heads-like evening and asked me to contribute. But Stephen is a one-thing-at-a-time kind of guy, so when the musical came back to life, I put in a drawer. It's never been read aloud before -- Linda Emond, who is one of my closest friends, kept asking to see it, and I wouldn't let her."

On the other hand, The Light in the Piazza has been read and read and read. The musical is based on the Elizabeth Spencer novella about a rich young American woman who falls in love with a handsome young Italian while on vacation, However, there's a family secret or two that could get in the way of a happy ending. It was filmed in 1962 with Olivia de Haviland, Rosanno Brazzi, Yvette Mimieux, and George Hamilton in the leads -- but the movie is, at best, a camp classic.

"Adam worked on this piece with some other writers, and, as I understand it, was considering putting it away because of some narrative problems," recalls Lucas. "As a favor to a friend, I agreed to listen to the songs, and I instantly loved them. Also I had always adored the novella, but never seen the movie -- I haven't to this day, and neither has Adam -- so I have only happy memories about the piece. Now, I want to do all my shows with Adam. He's the best, most encouraging collaborator I've ever worked with."

Adapting the novella was a bit of a challenge for Lucas. "Of course, your biggest fear is that you won't be up to task, but thankfully that hasn't been the case," he says. "Some of the sequences in the book were simply too cinematic and needed to be reconceived. Theater really doesn't work brilliantly by going quickly from scene to scene; each scene needs to have some heft.

"It's also a very nuanced piece," he continues. "It's very much about the shifting perception of these characters, and much of the show is predicated on the misunderstandings that occur because they don't speak the same language. It's great fun for the audience to watch these people be suspicious of one another."

Victoria Clark and Celia Keenan-Bolgerin The Light in the Piazza(Photo © Chris Bennion)
Victoria Clark and Celia Keenan-Bolger
in The Light in the Piazza
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
But his biggest challenge was adapting to the musical form. "I had to learn that music, on its own, can accomplish a lot of the storytelling," he says. "I also had to trust the choreographer and the scenic elements -- my plays have traditionally been set in one room with people sitting around drinking cocktails. It's like a learning a new language; it takes you a long time before you actually begin to dream in that language."

One aspect of the show that didn't faze Lucas was casting. "I think I have a good sense of casting from all those years working with Norman [René, his longtime director, who died in 1996 from AIDS at the age of 45]. Ironically, we had no one in mind when we were writing the piece, and when it was done, we thought maybe we had miscalculated in creating this 50-something woman who could sing many octaves and act brilliantly. Where were we going to find his person? But we were so lucky to get Victoria Clark, not to mention Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Pasquale, Kelli O'Hara, Mark Harelick, and Patti Cohenour."

Piazza runs through July 19, and will reopen at Chicago Goodman's Theater in January 2004. In between, Lucas will be back in New York, where he will be an almost ubiquitous presence during the 2003-2004 season. Rattlestick Theatre will present his new translation of Ibsen's Miss Julie; Playwrights Horizons will offer the world premiere of Small Tragedy, about the events surrounding a new production of Oedipus Rex; and Second Stage will present a revival of his 1980s hit Reckless next spring.

The revival, he quickly points out, was not his idea. "I don't really like to revisit my plays. Once it's got up, and worked, I don't need to see it anymore. And nothing will replace in my mind's eye the original production directed by Norman," says Lucas. "But it is a big deal for me to have Mark Brokaw direct, and a bigger deal to have Mary-Louise Parker star. She is one of the two or three peerless people in the theater I have worked with. I wasn't there when she did the reading, but I have no trouble believing she was amazing."

Lucas plans to visit Parker at rehearsals when they begin next year, but he will definitely be leaving the reins to Brokaw. "I'll probably just come by every once in a while," Lucas says. "Norman taught me that it's much more valuable for a playwright to drop in now and then with fresh eyes. The director is not the writer's secretary."

For the moment, however, Lucas can afford to fly cross-country if he wants. Last month, he was awarded a $5,000 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for his work. "Kate Clinton called my voicemail that day and said, 'Aren't you glad you've been corresponding with that little Polish girl all these years so you could win the pen pal award," says Lucas, with a laugh.

"Seriously, I am thrilled. It's really hard to maintain any steady income as an American playwright. You can go to Hollywood and make a killing, even a slaughter, but I don't really want to do movies. Well...I would love to do an original, gay-themed movie, but I've burned every bridge at every major studio. I said bad things to every one of them, to their faces. I regret it a little. In retrospect, they weren't bad people; they were just doing their job, which is to make money for the studio. In fact, in an alternate universe, I might be friends with the people at Fox who made Prelude to A Kiss, even though they mutilated the film by casting Meg Ryan [instead of stage lead Mary-Louise Parker]."

Anne-Marie Cusson in"Your Call Is Important"(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Anne-Marie Cusson in
"Your Call Is Important"
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
That said, Lucas is returning to the movie business in a small way by directing an indie film version of his 1998 play The Dying Gaul for Holedigger Films. Since casting is still far away, it's too early to say if any of the original Off-Broadway players -- Tony Goldwyn, Tim Hopper and Linda Emond -- will reprise their roles, but actor Campbell Scott is producing the film, and is expected to star.

A mesmerizing, dark-themed piece about a young gay screenwriter who is seduced by a bisexual film producer and his smarter-than-she-seems wife, The Dying Gaul might have been a huge Main Stem hit after its run at the Vineyard Theater had one critic not been quite so savage in his assessment. "It was the best reviewed play I've ever done," says Lucas, "except that Peter Marks of the New York Times hated it. And no producer in his right mind would ever move a serious play to Broadway without that seal of approval."

Lucas met the folks from Holedigger last year when he did the screenplay for The Secret Lives of Dentists, directed by Alan Rudolph. (The film is now scheduled for release on August 1.) Soon after, the company made him an offer he couldn't refuse: "They agreed to make The Dying Gaul on the condition I direct it. It was awkward, because I've been working on the screenplay with another director for a long time -- it's about 80 percent done -- and I had promised the job to him. Fortunately, he was very gracious. He knows how hard it is to get a film made."

With complete control of the film now in his hands, Lucas is going back to the drawing board. "Now, I can solve some of the story problems a little bit differently than the other director wanted to. I think I also want it to be a little sexier, seductive, even Hitchcockian. But I still need to set the action in the mid-'90s, when it was written. That's partly because we all know more about the Internet now [a major element in the plot] but mostly because that period was that interregnum between complete homophobia in Hollywood and what now passes for lack of homophobia."

So much for that studio film -- right, Craig?


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