Indeed, the spirit of the Marquis may have been close in the first week of rehearsals for Unwrap Your Candy, when the playwright/director set the mood by having his cast read case studies from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "They are caustically funny and deeply sobering at the same time," Wright explains.
The three plays were written over a 12-year period of Wright's career; all share a wicked sense of humor and an offbeat take on parent-child relationships. "I think it's also fair to say that they owe a certain debt to cultural phenomena like The Twilight Zone," adds Wright. "They should amuse, but they should also make people shudder." In Lot 13: The Bone Violin (written for the Actors Theater of Louisville over a decade ago) a couple grapple with bringing up their child, who turns out to be an extraordinary musical prodigy. Wildwood Park, which received its premiere at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, is set in a house where a horrible crime was committed. Finally, Baby Talk is about a pregnancy with a creepy twist.
"[The plays deal with] the horrors we visit on our young and which they in turn visit upon us," comments the playwright. Wright assures us that he is not getting back at his own family with these plays. "My parents are actually extravagantly supportive of my work. I guess at a certain level--dare I say--as a gay man without children, I am an observer in the lives of many children and many parents. Because I have my face pressed against that particular glass, I scrutinize it a lot in the culture. I also think that many of our fears, anxieties, and pathologies are rooted in our childhood. So it seems, if you want to write plays that have the capacity in any sense to terrify, by necessity you have to go back and examine childhood."
Although his own family life was untroubled, Wright says he left his home in Dallas, Texas the first chance he got: "I escaped at the tender age of 18, never to look back." He came to New York to complete a Masters in playwriting at NYU and has since made this city his home. It was in New York that he first caught the work of Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company--one of the most "seismic" experiences he ever had in the theater. "I remember that as being like the first time I read Flannery O'Connor," he recalls. "It just completely cut through all the way to my bones. I suddenly felt like there was a community of artists in the world who perceived it in the same way, and that I could somehow join them; the hyperbolic visions that danced in my head weren't mine alone."
Along with his NYU teachers, playwrights Terrence McNally and Michael Weller, Wright also cites Christopher Durang as a major influence on his writing. "Seeing [Durang's] Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo had an extraordinary impact," he says. "You learned that a moment could be profoundly comic and so wrenching at the same time. Durang gave us all permission to laugh at the unspeakable."
Right after finishing up at NYU, Wright had a play produced Off-Broadway at the WPA Theater in 1989. Buzzsaw Berkley, written as a valentine to the late Ridiculous Theater veteran Ethyl Eichelberger, was intended as a late-night cabaret but was given a full-scale production by WPA Theater. With song parodies by Michael John La Chiusa and direction by Christopher Ashley, it was, in the playwright's words, a "reckless, foul-mouthed, and ill-behaved" evening. "I remember one critic called it 'vulgarity times velocity,' which I don't think was intended as a flattering remark; but it was one of the most thrilling things anybody first said about my writing," Wright says gleefully.
After his career was launched at WPA (that group also produced his next play Watbanaland), Wright's original, one-act draft for Quills landed a reading at the New York Theater Workshop. NYTW's artistic director Jim Nicola was immediately enthusiastic but told the playwright that he had bitten off a lot and the play should be expanded to full-length. He offered Wright a thousand-dollar commission and promised to produce the play in a year and a half. When Wright completed the second act, Nicola kept his word and produced Quills in 1995. The playwright received an Obie award for his work, and he marks that production as the beginning of his full-time writing career. Quills was optioned for a movie the following year, and Wright spent 1996 through 1999 working on the screenplay.
In the meantime, Wright has continued to work in both media. He has just completed a screenplay for Warner Brothers based on "The Burial," a New Yorker article about a lawsuit in Mississippi against the funeral home industry. This summer, he workshopped a new piece titled I Am My Own Wife at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse. The one-man show is based on the amazing life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite who defiantly lived an alternative lifestyle under both the Nazi and Communist regimes.
When I first spoke to Wright, he had just begun rehearsals for Unwrap Your Candy. I caught up with him again a week after the World Trade Center destruction. "We lost a few days of rehearsal but, when we did get together it felt absolutely restorative to be working again as a community," he says. "Plays may not be terribly important at the moment, but moving forward certainly is. I think that's the healthiest thing that we can do. If the pieces felt artful on September 10, we can only hope that they are still artful on Sept 12. While we are opening them in a markedly different climate, we hope they offer the escapist fun of a good Alfred Hitchcock spine-tingler and a bucket of popcorn."