Down South with Doug Field
An R-rated chat with the author of Off-Broadway's most outrageous comedy.
Field also has under his belt the premiere in L.A. of his second play, C-Cup. That show co-starred Alana Stewart, the former Mrs. Rod Stewart; like Down South, it enjoyed a prosperous run in La-La Land. But the topic at hand for this interview is Down South, an outrageous comedy with a screamingly funny, highly original premise. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the play concerns a housewife who's having a sexual meltdown. It marks Field as yet another in the long line of envelope-pushing comic playwrights that includes Christopher Durang and Charles Busch--all kindred spirits.
A tall, handsome man with an eagerness to please, Field was eager to talk about Down South over iced tea and lemonade at a theater hangout in midtown.
THEATERMANIA: What prompted you to set Down South during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
DOUG FIELD: I remember, when I was really, really little, the basement in our house had all of these rooms. One room was for the boiler, one was for storage, and one had an old chair in it...but there was this one room that had a closet that was always shut, and this closet was stocked with rows and rows of canned goods. It was as if you walked into a grocery store, and in 1962 the canned goods had all these hokey labels; you know, "FRESH PEAS" with big, red and white graphics. Over the years, I would see that closet, but it never occurred to me to ask about the peas and stuff. Finally, when I was 17, we moved out of that house and it was my job to clean out the closet. So I finally asked what the hell was up with all of those canned goods and why did we never bring them up to the kitchen? After 17 years, some of them were leaking or exploding. My dad said they had been there since he went out and bought them during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was silly. The basement wasn't really a bomb shelter. Nothing was going to protect them down there. But that was the germ of Down South.
RS: In the play, you make a connection between the missile crisis and sexual frustration.
DF: When I started writing Down South, I don't think I masturbated...but every time I was typing dialogue for one of the characters, she'd say things like, "You're not going down on me!" I decided to just write whatever came.
RS: Where are you from, Doug?
DF: I was born in Washington, D.C. When I was one year old, we moved to Pittsburgh--hence the references to Pittsburgh in the play. I set Down South in Erie, Pennsylvania because I was a tennis player as a kid, and the kids from Pittsburgh sort of competed against the kids from Erie. On top of that, Erie had a bad reputation. Remember how, in the '70s, the lake caught on fire? It was so polluted that it actually caught on fire! So I set Down South in Erie. It seemed logical. After Erie, we moved to Texas. And I've been in Los Angeles for the last 10 or 11 years.
RS: You were a lawyer there?
DF: Yeah, I went to law school in L.A. My field was entertainment law, but nothing to do with theater--mostly film, television, books, and audio books. Every day now, I'm jazzed when I get up because I'm not working in law anymore, I've written Down South and I've seen it up on stage.
RS: How did the play's first production come about?
DF: Right after I finished writing it, I went to San Francisco, and a friend of mine had a reading of it there. She thought that would be a very "arty" thing to do. So she invited these friends--a couple of them were actors--and they read Down South in its first draft. The women who were reading the parts were just cracking up and everybody wanted to talk about the play afterwards. So I went back to L.A. and got persistent to get it produced. First, I found a theater; I just went and looked at spaces and I rented one in the spring of 2000. I had no cast, no director. I didn't know you had to do those things first! Rick Sparks, our director, was introduced to me by a friend.
RS: The show was very well received, wasn't it?
DF: We were "Pick of the Week" in L.A. Weekly, and Back Stage did a feature on us. After we had extended as many times as we could, I wanted to bring it to New York. So, a week after it closed in L.A., I flew here and pounded the pavement. I had a tape of the show and I had me. I really clicked with the Rattlestick people.
RS: Did you consider recasting for New York?
DF: No, no, no! When I told the L.A. cast that we'd be doing the show in New York, they were thrilled. We've become a part of this L.A. invasion: Bat Boy and Naked Boys Singing started in L.A., and now you're getting Reefer Madness.
RS: Down South and Bat Boy are all part of this wave of what I like to call "Smart But Kitschy" shows. I think Little Shop of Horrors started that wave. Charles Busch's shows are always smart but kitschy, and I'd say the same about Down South.
DF: Thank you! When we were running the show in L.A. last year, we had a really good Zeitgeist. There was the Elian Gonzales standoff in Miami, and Cuba was suddenly everywhere. I think that helped Down South in a weird way. You know the scene where Jennifer is knitting the Cuban flag? I don't think that would get nearly the laugh that it does if it hadn't been for that poor Gonzales boy. Everybody knows what the Cuban flag looks like because of all those flags waving night after night on TV.
RS: Lets talk about the blue language in the play. Did you ever think that you might have gone too far for some audience members?
DF: The truth of the matter is that I wrote exactly what I wanted to. To me, if you took out the parts that you'd consider the most blue, you'd take out the heart of the play. Now, there is one word that I didn't use: the four-letter "C" word. I don't think it would fit in Down South. But everything else was fair game. You know, I got a fan letter from an 80-year-old woman just after the show opened in New York; it was delivered to the theater and was written in long, cursive handwriting on that kind of personalized stationary that older people use. The return address was somewhere in the Village--an apartment that you know she's probably lived in for 60 years. She wrote, "Dear Mr. Field: My husband and I loved your play. We remember so vividly the way things were back then, but we just wanted to let you know that we didn't use the word 'asshole.' Back then, men were 'jerks.' Much continued success!"
TM: Have you heard any other objections to the play's language or subject matter?
DF: Well, when I told my mother I was writing this, she said: "Doug what's so funny about cunnilingus?" Let's not beat around the bush--pardon the pun!--but that is what the play is about.
RS: That and the birth of feminism and gays coming out of the closet.
DF: The Feminine Mystique was written in '63, and the play is set on the eve of all that. It's obvious that Stephen Stevens is a gay man married to a woman. As a gay man, I was fascinated by what it must have been like to be gay in '62, so it was fun to explore that character.
RS: Has the success of Down South gone to your head?
DF: It sounds corny, but I'm just trying to enjoy myself. In L.A., we were a "mom and pop" show; I was around every night to plunge the toilet, to sell tickets, whatever. Here in New York, it's different. The show's bigger. And we've been extended again, so I can have some free time, see some movies.
RS: Do you think C-Cup will be produced in New York anytime soon?
DF: We shall see. But I am working on a new play.
RS: Down South is about a wife who doesn't get head from her husband. C-Cup is about a woman with only one breast living in Tyler, Texas. What could Doug Field's third play possibly be about?
DF: Its called Fat, and it's about a very large woman who has come to New York City at the invitation of her sister to be a member of a wedding.
RS: Is it a comedy or a drama?
DF: I'm trying to write honestly about what it's like to be large.
RS: How has living in New York been treating you?
DF: I've got a sublet over on 45th, off of Eighth Avenue. The Triton Gallery is on that block, and they've just put the poster for my play in their window to sell. Now, that means a lot to me.
RS: Do you have any wise words for aspiring playwrights?