Interview: Playwright Theresa Rebeck Creates Her Own Barbenheimer, On and Off-Broadway

Rebeck digs into her new plays, Dig and I Need That.

Theresa Rebeck
(© Cleo Lynn)

Theresa Rebeck is used to multitasking. The playwright, screenwriter, and novelist has two shows opening not just in the same season, but within three weeks of each other. Dig, her small-town story of redemption, opened as a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters September 20, while I Need That, a father-daughter reckoning, begins previews on Broadway via Roundabout Theatre Company on October 13.

“I’m like my own Barbenheimer,” Rebeck said of the overlapping schedules. “There are three days in both runs when you could go to a Theresa Rebeck double header.”

While the plays contain similar themes, including family histories and father-daughter relationships, Rebeck never intended for them to open in the same season. “The plays weren’t really written in relationship to each other,” Rebeck said. “They were written so far apart.”

Dig, which Rebeck also directs, follows Roger (Jeffrey Bean), the solitary owner of a plant shop, and Megan (Andrea Syglowski) the daughter of his longtime friend Lou (Triney Sandoval). Reeling from a personal tragedy and struggling with addiction, Megan is the last person Roger wants in his store, which is his life’s work. But the unlikely pair soon provide each other with comfort and inspiration.

The set of Dig is packed with plants, while I Need That chronicles a man’s struggle to clear his home of clutter. Sam (Danny DeVito) is not technically a hoarder, but Rebeck was inspired to write by watching shows about them, which, she said, “scared the shit out of me.”

“I was really interested more in how it overlaps with the stories that so many of us are living through now,” she said. “Our parents aging and wanting to maintain their independence, but being less and less capable of doing that and the tension of, how do you help them? And also how do you respect them? You see two people who really love each other but cannot communicate at this dire hour.”

Rebeck can understand the reluctance to dispose of sentimental possessions. Her own desk is cluttered with mechanical pencils and coffee mugs.

“I recognize that impulse as a real human emotion, so it became about exploring: What do these things do for us? What do we get from them? And then studying how, for our hero and I think for me, too, they carry so much more meaning. They’re like mementos of life, or mementos of a moment, and if you hold them, touch them, so much rises out of them.”

Jeffrey Bean, Andrea Syglowski and Triney Sandoval in Primary Stages' DIG, photo by Justin Swader
Jeffrey Bean, Andrea Syglowski and Triney Sandoval in Theresa Rebeck’s Dig
(© Justin Swader)

As in all of Rebeck’s work, Dig’s story offers a uniquely female perspective. When exploring the trauma of Megan’s past, the play provides a piercing look at the public judgment mothers are subject to, as well as the radically different standards for fathers. Rebeck is familiar with this story, having faced similar judgment when she returned to work after the birth of her son, and her husband stayed home with their baby.

“My husband did say to me at the time, ‘I knew we’d be kind of the cutting edge of this, but I didn’t know we’d be the only ones doing it’ and that was true,” she recalled. “I found myself constantly under siege, and my husband, meanwhile, was constantly being told by everybody how great he was to stay home and take care of the kids.”

Rebeck has been exploring these standards in her work for decades; her play Spike Heels offers a Pygmalion-inspired battle of the sexes, while Bernhardt/Hamlet probed questions of fame and gender within the theater. 

“There’s a real divide about how people see women and men,” she said. “It’s something I talk about, people asked me about. It’s not feminism – it’s just reporting on how the world looks.”

The most-Broadway-produced female playwright, Rebeck has also contributed to many television shows and films and has encountered blatant sexism in writing rooms. With Dig and I Need That marking her first New York shows following the Covid-19 pandemic and industry shutdown, she is witnessing the increased focus on diversity and representation. While optimistic about the future of theater, she acknowledges the need for future change.

“I think that if we want to really do this, I would love to see us figure out how to lower these ticket prices. That will solve so much,” she said. “I’m really proud of Dig, and I’m glad that it costs, like, 60 bucks, because I think you can go through a really great piece of theater [at 59E59 Theaters]. Beautiful set, beautiful acting, terrific, mysterious story.

“Theater can be something that you just do,” she continued. “You go to dinner and you go the theater and the movie theater. You want theater to be kind of an option, a real option for people, not something that’s so special they can only go once in a blue moon.”

The shared experience of seeing live theater can be healing, she said. And it can inspire hope.

“I think that the theater is a place where we gather and to experience something together. The task is to sit there and to feel for that person up there and to experience other people’s lives. One of the things I like about Dig is that it does suggest we can heal each other. We know that healing is possible. It’s very difficult, and can be even dire. But it is possible.”

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A promotional image for I Need That, starring Danny DeVito
(© Jeff Minton)

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Closed: November 5, 2023

I Need That

Final performance: December 30, 2023