All Over the Map
Adam Rapp on Red Light Winter in Chicago. Plus: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in Los Angeles and The Flight of the Lawnchair Man in Chester, CT.
Set in Amsterdam, the play centers around two American men and a beautiful young prostitute. "I had this experience with a friend in Amsterdam that was similar in its geometry," says Rapp. "There were two of us and a prostitute, and we were both with her. He formed an attachment to her; it wasn't reciprocated and it became really unhealthy, irrational, and bizarre. The characters are not myself and my friend, but the structure and feel of the play is born out of that. I've had to deal with that a lot in rehearsal, talking about my experience with prostitutes in the red light district!"
In addition to writing the play, Rapp is also directing. "I love working with actors," he remarks. "As a playwright, I'm often not concerned with the audience so much, but as a director, I become a very sensitive audience advocate in terms of storytelling. It forces me to really examine every moment." This also gives him the opportunity to be a bit looser and more experimental in the rehearsal room. "I'm not saying that I give the actors the freedom to ad lib or anything," he says, "but the rule is that the best idea wins. It's sort of like I'm in a little playground with them sometimes, and if something's not working, I let them try something of their own. I'm changing the script every day -- nothing enormous, but we're finding a lot of really cool, rich moments."
The production stars Gary Wilmes, Christopher Denham, and Lisa Joyce. While rehearsals have been fun, there have also been some tricky moments. "There's full cast nudity," says Rapp. "I'm sensitive about that because most of my plays have some sort of nudity, and I understand that it's a very risky thing." Wilmes, however, helped make things a bit easier. According to Rapp, "He's sort of like the company clown. He came in, took his pants down, and just started walking around. It broke the tension and everybody laughed."
Since the debut of his Nocturne, which had its New York premiere in 2001, Rapp has quickly become a playwright to watch. Such recent works as Blackbird and Finer Noble Gases have helped to solidify his reputation as a writer with a bold approach to dramatic style and a gift for creating nuanced characters. Describing his approach to character, Rapp states, "it's like capturing a melody. Every voice is unique to a human being. I find that if I can create the specific world of the play, hopefully the language or melody of that voice will come out of that world authentically in some way. I try to disappear as much as possible, to schizophrenically inhabit people in my head and then figure out the way they should speak."
Rapp is the resident playwright of the Edge Theater Company in New York. In addition to Red Light Winter, the prolific author has several other projects in various stages of completion, including a novel, a screenplay, and a new play titled Essential Self Defense. "I have so many ideas and so many things that I want to say, it almost feels like a mental illness," Rapp confides. "I sometimes have to prevent myself from writing; otherwise I'll just live in my head all the time."
Some people know the story of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir from the movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. Others know it from the 1960s television series with Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange, and still fewer know the original source material: a 1945 novel by R.A. Dick. Writer-director James J. Mellon hopes that, in future, the tale will additionally be known through his musical adaptation, set to open later this month at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.
The novel and its various adaptations concern a young widow named Lucy Muir, who moves to a seaside cottage with her two children. While trying to become accustomed to her new life, Lucy encounters the ghost of a former sea captain, Daniel Gregg, who committed suicide there. At this point, several of the novel's adaptations veer off track and use the plot twist for improbable humor. In fact, when Mellon read the musical's original script some six years ago, he turned down the project because he saw it going down the same path; he only agreed to participate after reading the novel, "falling in love" with it, and insisting on rewriting the adaptation from scratch.
The spiritual aspects of the book particularly fascinated Mellon, who is also a minister for a branch of the New Thought Church in California. This religious movement, begun by Anton Mesmer in the early 19th century, holds that thought creates experience. According to Mellon, that notion resonates strongly in Mrs. Muir: "When I read the novel, it was so clear that Lucy was a woman of the early 1900s who made decisions based on her intuitive thoughts."
Mellon's spiritual beliefs also informed his most well-known theater project, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's A Portrait of Dorian Grey. "Dorian was something that I'd wanted to do since college," he says. "It was very interesting because I had to reassess it since I spent so much time in the New Thought Movement. How do I tell this gothic, horrific story, and still maintain the spirituality of it?" When the renowned composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz saw the show, he said that it worked because Dorian was treated as a tragic hero. (Admits Mellon, "Oscar Wilde didn't write it that way.")
While Mellon took various liberties with Wilde's novel, including setting it in a different time and place, his adaptation of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir is quite reverent. Any writer knows that the most challenging part of adaptation is competing with people's expectations. "The posters for the show went up around town yesterday and I happened to be coming out of a restaurant where three women were looking at this huge poster," Mellon relates. "I stopped to listen, and they were all talking about how it was one of their favorite movies."
But he believes that the film version was true enough to the spirit of the novel that the three women won't be disappointed by the musical. Mellon compares the style of the piece to a memory play á la The Glass Menagerie. Musical theater buffs will recognize many members of the cast, which includes Broadway veterans such as James Barbour, Lynne Wintersteller, Brooks Almy, and Kevin Bailey.
"Someone asked me, 'How do you get people like Jim Barbour and Lynne Wintersteller to come out here to a 99-seat theater and commit four months of their time to a show?'" Mellon recalls. "One of the things that we're doing here at the NoHo Arts Center is that we're trying to create Playwright's Horizon's West, where playwrights and composers and actors can come, develop a project, and see a fully realized production for a tenth of what it would cost somewhere else."
New York theater critics have sounded off on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the general consensus is that a flying hunk of metal upstages everything else in the show. But if the truth be told, the musical theater has a long history of flying objects and flying people, from Peter Pan to Miss Saigon.
Lynne Taylor Corbett, director of the Goodspeed Musicals production of The Flight of the Lawnchair Man, believes that the best of such spectacles tap into the audience's imagination and longing. (A previous version of the show was presented in 2000 at the Prince Music Theater as part of a program of three one-act musicals collectively titled 3hree).
Lawnchair Man is based on several real-life accounts of people who strapped themselves to lawn chairs tied to balloons in order to fly. One such fellow, from California, reached an altitude of almost three miles before descending safely into telephone lines, and a number of copycat missions followed. Composer-librettist Robert Lindsey has spun these astonishing accounts into a fictionalized story of a man named Jerry Gorman from Passaic, New Jersey.
While the musical has plenty of potential for flash and spectacle, Taylor-Corbett has been careful not to take the production in this direction. The flying lawn chair runs on a traditional tracking device and it mainly serves to move the story forward. Once airborne, Jerry runs into famous aviators of the past, and we learn more about what drives him to take such drastic actions. "I suppose that we all want to do it secretly," the director asserts. "We all want to transcend. There's the fantasy element of life, the spirituality that it can represent, and the thought that there might be a chance of it coming true."
In addition, the musical is a love story about a woman who doesn't want to stand in the way of Jerry's dreams, and it has a surprise ending with political undertones. Although Corbett declines to reveal the details, she hints that it has to do with "an atmosphere of intolerance" that led the main character to want to escape. "Jerry doesn't fit in anywhere," she adds. "That's the overriding thing."
Alhough Corbett enjoyed the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon, she says that The Flight of the Lawnchair Man is very different from that blockbuster. "Spectacle conjures an image of hugeness, but this show is very small and delicate," she remarks. "The wonderful thing about working in this kind of theater with this kind of budget is that the story's always the focus."