John Patrick Shanley discusses the challenges of writing and directing for the theater, the ups and downs of the film world, and (of course) his latest project.
Sitting with Shanley in a Starbucks (of all places), I listened to him describe the genesis of his latest play, Where's My Money? This, too, seemed almost mythical. Every year, the LAByrinth Theater Company offers a "theater intensive" outside the city in order to develop new work. Last August, Shanley agreed to write a play for this private workshop; then he went in for eye surgery. "The day after the surgery, I got out of bed, because I knew I had five days left to write," says the playwright/director. "I wrote the play in five days, then got in my car and drove for three hours--blind in one eye--up to this intensive, and rehearsed and put on the play."
Shanley is now directing Where's My Money? for LAByrinth at Center Stage on West 21st Street; the production stars the company's co-artistic director, John Ortiz.
THEATERMANIA: How did you get involved with LAByrinth?
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: Well, years ago, I worked with John Ortiz. I cast him in a play I did called The Fool and Her Fortune at New York Stage and Film. I was struck by him, and enjoyed working with him. I saw him periodically over the next few years, and then a very close friend of mine, John Rubin, became involved with LAByrinth. They have a lot of parties, these people. I went to a couple and ran into Ortiz. After a few drinks, I said, "So, why don't you make me a member?" And he said, "So, why don't you write us a play?" So I wrote them a play. They still haven't made me a member. It's the old bait and switch thing.
TM: Have you brought it up again?
JPS: I bring it up at every opportunity. It's an interesting theater in that it's very communal. The places where I usually work, you see the staff and you see the cast, and that's who you see. In this place, you see a community of 30 other people who show up regularly. It's not so hermetically sealed. It's not just about the play you're doing, but about this ongoing group of people who are coming up with an artistic enterprise.
TM: Why did you feel this play would be appropriate for LAByrinth?
JPS: Basically, I committed to writing a play for them--while I wasn't sober. Then, I got a call when I was sober: "Were you serious?" I said, "Well, yeah. I'll stick to it." And they said, "We're doing this thing we call The Intensive in the summertime. Could you have it for that?" I said, "Sure." It went well and, subsequently, they again approached me about possibly doing the play. They asked, "Do you think you could cast within the company?" And I said, "Yes." In fact, I conceived the play to be cast from this pool of actors that sort of reflects the basic New York. It's much more multi-ethnic than most theaters I've worked with in town lately.
TM: What's the play about?
JPS: It revolves around two second-rate divorce lawyers--both of them failed the Bar exam the first time. It's about marriage, divorce, gender, the idea of marriage in America now, and materialism--the effects of materialism on people's psyches. The only thing I can promise is that you never know what's going to happen next. You will get a preconceived notion of what the play is about and what it's going to be like as you begin to watch it; then, that will become altered. Each time you assume what the next scene is going to be, you're wrong. And I like that.
TM: According to the press release, the play is also about the battle between the genders, which is a common theme that comes up a lot in your work...
JPS: I'm not sure I would agree with that.
JPS: I would say, certainly, there have been contentious men and women put on stage by me, but what they were contending about was not their gender differences. They're trying to solve a problem. Where's My Money? is not just a battle between the sexes; it's a to-the-death battle between the sexes. It's a much more confrontational play than I've done in some time.
TM: Perhaps you can talk about the way you approach the writing of your characters.
JPS: Well, many years ago, when I first started out, I read a collection of plays by Albert Innaurato. I was taken with The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie and Gemini because of their use of vernacular. Then I read the foreword to the collection, which could have been written by an English professor. It was very clear to me that he was attempting to say, "I am much smarter than this." You know? I recognized that I have that tendency, and I've got to really watch out for it. I'm not going to resort to big words and pyrotechnical erudition to prove to people that I'm smart; I'm going to try to get to the issues that I'm interested in, to use language that is less academic and more of the street but use it to express the most sophisticated ideas that I have. I think that pressure to stay within a certain vocabulary and still say any goddamn thing that I want--however difficult to express--has been helpful to my writing style.
TM: You're also directing Where's My Money? Over the years, you've directed a lot of your own work. Can you talk about why you choose to do this?
JPS: It seems like a natural outgrowth of what I do. It suits my personality. It's odd for me to sit passively by while someone else explains what I'm doing. I've done it on occasion; sometimes, I find it exhilarating, because I can walk out whenever I want. But, more often, it seems to be an artificial distinction. Having said that, I want to do another project for LAByrinth and have someone else direct, just because I don't want to have to work that hard all the time.
TM: When you did Cellini at Second Stage last season, I remember you said in The New York Times that you'd kill anyone else who'd try to direct it.
JPS: Well, with that particular show, there was no way I was letting someone else take over. That was five years of my life. It's so hard to do. I just didn't feel there was anybody out there who would put it together--who had the skill and the talent and was willing. It was like putting on a Broadway musical, except you're doing it for a subscription house for six weeks. So I felt I had to do it.
TM: Speaking of Broadway musicals, there's a rumor that you're adapting Moonstruck into a Broadway musical.
JPS: Nice segue! Yeah, I am. I'm working with Henry Krieger and Susan Birkenhead, and a producer named Ira Pittelman. Right now, he's doing Stones in His Pockets and The Dinner Party. Great guy. He's from the music world; that's where he made his fortune. Now he's gotten into producing theater in a big way. He's the single most positive producing force I've ever encountered in the theater.
TM: At what stage of development is the project?
JPS: We were almost through the first act. We got stalled because I did Cellini, and Henry and Susan did this big Disney show. We're going to reconvene after Where's My Money? and get back to work.
TM: Since we're already discussing Moonstruck, can I ask you about your film work in general? What is it like to go back and forth between stage and screen?
JPS: Well, film involves huge amounts of money, and that attracts the scum of the earth as well as the most talented people around. So you have this incredible bipolar experience when you're working in film--gangsterism, selfish behavior, things you don't see in the theater because people don't tend to get that thuggish when there's no money involved. You can go bankrupt in the theater, but you're up against yourself. In film, you're in some kind of Dante-esque universe with black and white angels and strange people being tortured in anonymous rooms. It's a strange, fabulous, awful effect.
TM: Was Joe vs. the Volcano the last movie you did?
JPS: That I directed, yes. But I did Alive, about the Andes disaster, and I did Congo.
TM: You did that?
JPS: It's one of my bizarre claims to fame. It grossed $150 million, but, it was one of these things that I never took seriously. I thought it was hilarious that I was doing Congo, I thought it was hilarious what they were paying me, I thought it was hilarious that it was the biggest opening in Paramount's history. I remember doing a press junket for it and this one reporter asked me, "How do you feel bearing the responsibility of adapting Michael Crichton for the screen?" I said, "What are you talking about? It's not Joseph Conrad. Relax." So, it was a worthy subject of comedy. Whereas Joe vs. the Volcano, which I threw myself into utterly, got wildly mixed notices. It got excoriated in The New York Times, as did Moonstruck--that was the only negative review in the country. The substance of the negative review was that this was not what Italian people were like. Then, when the movie went to number one in Rome, The New York Times wrote a second review and said it was a classic. Which gave me a new way of looking at The New York Times.
TM: Do you feel that the first Times reviewer made that negative comment because you're not Italian?
JPS: I think Janet Maslin wrote that because she had a preconceived notion of what Italian people were like, and she didn't know what the hell she was talking about. I grew up with Italian-American people, lots of them, and I knew exactly what I was talking about. Since I've always gotten bad reviews from The New York Times, I wasn't shocked when I read that review. I was like, "Oh, business as usual." The odd thing was that, this time, it was such a successful enterprise. I discovered what success meant, which is that people openly change direction, say "It's great," and never mention that they said anything else before that. It's hypocrisy.
TM: Could you talk about the romanticism that pervades a lot of your writing?