All Over the Map
Past Perfect in San Francisco, Surviving the Nian in Boston, and The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan in Silver Spring.
Most of Silver's plays were first seen in NYC, so how did this one end up on the West Coast? "I wrote it about the same time as Beautiful Child," he says, referring to his disturbing drama about a handsome, charming pedophile. "The Vineyard [which produced Beautiful Child] wanted to do Past Perfect, but I would never follow a grim play with a grim play at the same theater. We did a couple of readings, one at Lincoln Center and one at Playwrights Horizons. When Rhino did Beautiful Child, it was a much bigger success for them than it was in New York. They asked me if I had anything that hadn't been produced, so I said, 'Well, you can take a look at Past Perfect and have a crack at that if you want.' "
The play is described in the press materials as a "brutal comedy," but Silver says it could also be labeled "a whimsical tragedy." He adds: "I generally write a play to explore some idea or to figure something out for myself. I write about so many families. In this instance, the family has some ties that bind them, but they're not anxious to connect; they're looking for ways out. The play is called Past Perfect because the main characters are victims of their own idealized images of the past. They've condemned themselves to misery because they're unable to free themselves from their memories of how things were."
Silver is famous for pushing the envelope; "I have allowed my characters to make some terribly offensive remarks," he says. That goes a long way toward explaining his feelings about the recent Don Imus brouhaha: "I'm trying to imagine, would I care more if I was a black woman, or if Imus had said something about limp-wristed fags? So a man made a racially offensive remark. Does the earth stop spinning because of that? I don't think people should be fired for what they say; they should be fired when and if the marketplace determines it. If you start firing people because you don't like what they say, anyone is fair game. It's the same thing that happened when they took Bill Maher off the air because of what he said about 9/11. I think we're a very touchy society. Free speech is free speech."
Even as he cheerfully admits that much of his past work received mixed notices, Silver says that he definitely plans on reading what the critics think of Past Perfect. "I don't believe people who say they don't read reviews," he states emphatically. "And I don't agree with the theory that if you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones. Who made that rule? I believe the good reviews and try with all my might not to believe the bad ones. Just take the positive. Life's too short!"
In the show, Kaylin returns to her home in Hong Kong, bringing along her African-American lesbian partner, Asha. Fireworks explode, in more ways than one. "The show takes place over the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year and is structured by the different days of celebration," says Rybeck. "Nian -- a creature from Chinese mythology -- comes around once a year, and families have to sit together and work out their differences to survive the onslaught of the beast. If they do that, they've made it through to the next year."
The musical calls into question a number of cultural assumptions in regard to both race and sexuality. "Kaylin and Asha have to deal with the fact that their entire relationship has happened in Asha's language, in Asha's country, around Asha's family," says Rybeck. "There's a lot of conflict between them in the second act; Asha feels ignored and insulted by the racism and xenophobia she faces in Hong Kong, which reminds Kaylin of her experience in the U.S."
Li and Rybeck first met when she was only 16. "She started out in our True Colors youth program as a teenager, and she's only 23 now," he states. "It was clear from the start that she was a very talented songwriter." He encouraged her to write something as part of the company's developmental program, Plays at Work. After the second staged reading, Rybeck came on board as co-writer at Li's request.
Rybeck feels the show fulfills the company's mission: "To form and present the diverse realities of queer lives in art so bold it breaks through personal isolation and political orthodoxy to help build an honest, progressive community." But it goes even further. "More importantly, it joins together our outreach and developmental programs into a full production to give a wonderful expression of the big picture of what we do," he says.
Elia Kazan was a highly controversial figure, respected for his magnificent work as a director of great plays and films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and On the Waterfront but loathed by many people for having "named names" during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Both emotions were on display when Kazan was presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1999; several notables in the audience made a point of remaining seated with their hands folded even as others stood, applauded, and cheered.
The fascinating story of this man's life and career is currently being told in Leslie A. Kobylinski's The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan, at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Kazan is in a Hollywood purgatory, reviewing the dailies of his life," says his portrayer, D.C.-area favorite Rick Foucheux, in describing the one-man play.
"He's painfully honest -- not only about his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but also about his sexual peccadilloes and his ambition," Foucheux continues. "When it came time for Kazan to name names, he realized, 'I'm going to make a lot of enemies for doing this, but the fact of the matter is that I hate Communism now. I was a member of the Communist party for about a year and a half when I was a kid, but now I've come to see it or what it is. Why should I support a cause I no longer believe in if that would mean I couldn't direct films anymore?"
The actor is happy to be performing such a meaty role, especially since it was written expressly for him: "Leslie and I were talking one day about three years ago, and I told her, 'I'd love to do a one man show; I don't like sitting in the green room!' She said, 'You know, I just finished reading Elia Kazan's autobiography, and I think it would make a great show.' She worked up about one hour's worth of material directly from the book, and we auditioned it for the Round House; but they didn't have a slot for it, so we went on to other things."
In January 2006, Round House called to see if they were still interested in a production. "We were, but Leslie had decided that she wanted to rewrite it in her own words," says Foucheux. "So she did that, using the autobiography and Richard Schickel's excellent book about Kazan as source material."
Would Foucheux care to offer his personal opinion about Kazan's actions in the '50s? "It was a crazy time," he says. "There were no right or wrong answers. I think people will come away from the play thinking what Tennessee Williams said to Kazan: 'It's all gray, baby, it's all gray.' I believe Kazan could have survived the McCarthy era without naming names. He could have gone back to Broadway and directed plays; then, when everything had cooled down, he could have returned to Hollywood. But he didn't have a crystal ball. I don't necessarily agree with what he did, but I've come to understand what a terrible position he was in."