Two weeks before the opening of Our Lady, I meet Guirgis -- a darkly handsome, prematurely gray-haired, Irish/Egyptian admixture -- at Upper Broadway's aptly named French Roast (it's a 97 degree day!) for a chat about writing, acting, the LAB, "Phil" (Philip Seymour Hoffman, his director and friend), and how he still doesn't have an ending for the new play. It's Guirgis's third collaboration with Hoffman, the LAB's co-artistic director, who also directed the much acclaimed In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings and Jesus Hopped the A Train. The latter just completed a critically acclaimed London engagement this past June (see TM, May 31, 2002) and also had a successful run at Chicago's Steppenwolf in the spring.
There's been tremendous positive response to Guirgis' growing body of work and to JHTAT, with its knotty questions of faith and redemption, in particular. "It's going to be done in Helsinki next year," the author says with a bad boy grin, and I suddenly remember counting at least 82 uses of the word "fuck" as a noun, verb, adjective, et cetera during the play's first five minutes alone. This obviously tickles the playwright, who says, "Somebody told me it's a three syllable word in Finnish, which means the play could run an extra 20 minutes."
Switching to a more serious tone, Guirgis reminds me that he's primarily an actor who writes. "I took a 'pass-fail' playwriting class at Albany State [which he attended with John Ortiz, the LAB's other co-artistic director and JHTAT co-star] but I didn't study and I wasn't well read," he readily admits, adding, "but the more you do..." He doesn't finish the sentence, but Hoffman once described Guirgis's writing as "almost naïve, like he's saying nobody told me that it's wrong to write like this. That's a talent, and Stephen's writing is full of this 'I-don't-know-I didn't-take-the-class' kind of stuff." Guirgis does, however, admit to having read John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, saying that "Shanley was the first playwright I ever read and he's been an inspiration as well as an influence and now he's with us at the LAB!" (Shanley's Where's My Money? premiered last season at the LAB's current 21st Street Center Stage home and then moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club.)
Guirgis recalls, "After graduation in '92, I went to Santa Fe and started a theater while John [Ortiz] came back to New York and helped create the LAB [which originally stood for "Latin Actor Based"]. When I came home in '93, I joined John and the LAB and then John met Phil doing Merchant of Venice [Ortiz played Bassanio while Hoffman was Launcelot in the Peter Sellars production] and invited him to join." In 1995, actor Ortiz asked actor Guirgis to write a play and he did. Race, Religion and Politics, a one act, featured actor Hoffman playing an Irish construction worker down at HERE. That was the beginning of what Guirgis deems "an actor/writer relationship emblematic of the way the LAB works. We're all actors, but out of necessity we've all become multi-disciplinary -- me writing, Phil directing, John Gould Rubin producing." Those productions have included the New York/Edinburgh Fringe Festival and both London productions of JHTAT, at the Donmar and the Arts Theatre, where no less a presence than Madonna herself joined Rubin's producing team.
Guirgis also directs -- most recently, LAB member and friend Liza Colon Zayas' solo show Sistah Supreme at P.S. 122. Colon's hubby David Zayas ("OZ") has appeared in all of Gurigis' plays at the LAB. "I often write for particular company members," says Guirgis, "and David's voice is so distinctive." In fact, when Zayas's television commitment kept him from the West End run of JHTAT at the Arts, Guirgis himself took over the role of Valdez, the vindictive guard, for a week while waiting for replacement Nestor Serrano.
If all of this sounds a bit incestuous, check the LAB roster for the new play: It includes both Zayases, Ron Cephas Jones, and Elizabeth Canavan (from the New York and Edinburgh/London productions of JHTAT) as well as David Deblinger (from Where's My Money?). The only "usual suspect" missing in action on this one is Ortiz, currently in La Jolla doing the latest play by José Rivera (References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot). "We have such an abundance of talent, why look anywhere else?" Guirgis asks rhetorically with evident pride. As for the ongoing playwright/director relationship with Hoffman, he explains, "At first, when I wrote Arabia, they [the LAB] asked me, 'Who do you want to direct it?' and I said, 'Phil,' who hadn't directed anything before. But he liked it so he said, 'Great.' Naturally, I'd like to think Phil would direct anything I write. Arabia [Guirgis first full-length work] was the play where we finally said, 'Okay, let's invite the public in. It originally starred Daphne Rubin-Vega -- we'd studied acting together -- and now it's scheduled for Hampstead, just outside London, in 2003."
How much do his plays reflect Guirgis's own life? "Well," he replies, "I did spend five years as a 'violence prevention counselor' in places like Riker's [the setting for JHTAT], Spofford [a juvenile facility], and several half-way houses -- and I still plan to go back. That's not something I want to graduate from. And I did attend a co-ed parochial school in Harlem [the setting of of Our Lady]; there was this one nun who was always telling me that, to become a man, I had to put away childish things. She just never told me where to put them. All three plays have all been about characters growing up and actively struggling to accept situations in their lives." Our Lady takes place at a class reunion/wake for one of the nuns who, as a teacher, was a big influence on her students' lives. The gathering is interrupted when the mourners discover that the body is missing. They also discover that they're not just grieving for their teacher but also for who they've become versus who they thought they'd be by this time. The play can't help but touch on the scandals and controversies in the Catholic church as well. "And, like JHTAT, there are also questions of faith -- something I'm still struggling with myself," notes the author.
Guirgis also spent some time in L.A., writing television scripts for such shows as N.Y.P.D. Blue and David Milch's The Big Apple; in fact, he turned down a couple of TV jobs to write this play. "I know I'm not going to make any money and I'm still not sure what it's going to be," Guirgis confesses with a smile. "The LAB's increased visibility has added all kinds of external pressure to the process. Up to this point, it's all been kind of innocent, a lot of hard work, and often painful, but now it's become something else. Now it's attached to a result and people are already talking about where we're going to move -- and we haven't even opened. It's a workshop and I haven't written the ending yet!"