The division of labor — you know, who did what to whom and why? — can be one of the fuzzier areas of theatergoing.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve studied my program on the way home and wondered whether the playwright or the director should be praised, or blamed, for the wonderments, or the disappointments, that just happened onstage. This is especially true with new plays, which can morph around a lot during what theater people like to call the developmental process.
Of course, when the playwright is also the director — which, oddly enough, is happening a lot right now — we know precisely who is making the decisions. This can result in such a blissfully unified vision as Richard Nelson’s trilogy, “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” which presents its final installment opening at the Public Theater on election night. To separate Nelson’s conversational text from his hyper-intimate presentation would be unthinkable.
On the other hand, there are the evenings when we’re reminded of the proverb that apparently has been useful since at least the early 19th century: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”
I’m afraid I think here of “Race” — a Broadway flop written and directed by David Mamet. This may just be coincidence, but in Mamet’s ’80s golden age — including “Speed-the-Plow” and the Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” — he trusted the outside eye of a director (specifically, Gregory Mosher) in the collaboration.
And so I’m delighted — and, since I dearly miss the good Mamet, relieved — to hear that his new work, “The Penitent,” will be directed this winter by Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater (co-founded more than 30 years ago by Mamet and William H. Macy).
Pepe refuses to see this as any kind of turning point in Mamet’s career trajectory. “Over the years, I’d say, ‘Hey, do you have something you would like to do at the Atlantic?’ ” Pepe explains to me in a recent phone interview. “When I read this one, I said, ‘I’d love to direct it,’ and he said, ‘Fantastic.’ ”
As we speak, however, two major revivals are being directed by their original playwrights. On Broadway, James Lapine has staged the much-anticipated revival of “Falsettos,” the breakthrough musical comedy about, for starters, AIDS, co-authored by composer William Finn. The show was first written as three daring yet endearing one-acts from 1979 to 1990 and combined into one show for Broadway in 1992. Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, which is producing the revival, was head of Playwrights Horizons when the show began there. He says Lapine is the only artist with whom he has ever worked as both playwright and director. “Because this is a musical, it’s a very positive thing,” says Bishop, who was also there when Lapine wrote and directed two Stephen Sondheim masterworks, “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.”
In contrast, Bishop believes that plays benefit from a collaboration between writer and director. “If the director is good, the partnership is a fantastic thing,” he says. “But when it comes to musicals, there is more fluidity. . . . And James as a writer is very much in sync with the kind of production he intends the show to be.”
Meanwhile, Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company, Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright and legendary provocateur, is staging his “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the boys.” This is his 1982 autobiographical drama about a young white boy and his family’s two middle-aged African servants. Fugard directed its premiere on Broadway, where it ran for almost a year, and Lonny Price, who played the boy — a stand-in for Fugard himself — in that production, directed a brief run in 2003.
Fugard, 84, laughs when I ask when he first decided to direct his own work. “Right at the onset of my writing career,” says Fugard, part Afrikaner, part Englishman, who began making illegal theater with whites and blacks. “Nobody else wanted to touch the plays I had written. I had to get on with it.” In those days, the apartheid government refused to let “Master Harold” be staged there.
But how does he decide when not to direct his work? “Whenever I’ve written a new play, there is only one director,” he answers with absolute certainty. “For the first defining production, that is myself. The first production is like the birth of a child. I want to know that the play onstage is the one I have written — what’s going to survive is the text I have put on the stage. It’s the one guaranteed in this very, very uncertain world.”
After he has defined the work, “I let the play go. It’s as simple as that.” At the Signature, where he is in semi-permanent residence, he staged the haunting 2015 premiere of “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek,” which was new, and let Ruben Santiago-Hudson direct a powerhouse revival of Fugard’s most prescient political drama, “My Children! My Africa!” “It was so clean, so honest,” he says about Santiago-Hudson’s production. “That was a wonderful experience for me.”
He returned to “Master Harold” and another old play, “Blood Knot,” as the urging of the man he calls “the beautiful and wonderful” James Houghton, the Signature’s founding visionary, who died this past summer of stomach cancer at 57.
“I must admit,” he says, “I had a thought in the back of my head that maybe I should look at this play again. At this point of my life, some reconsidering must take place about what I have done and what I have been.”
Still, I am surprised to hear that, in Pepe’s experience at the Atlantic, most fine playwrights make equally fine directors. “I have found they have a good sense of the value of the actors in the process and the value of getting out of the way of the play.” Of course, he has heard what we have all heard, about playwrights who, as he gracefully puts it, “may need a little perspective. I’ve heard that things can go wrong when they have too much ownership about their writing.”