September 23, 2007 An Acute Interest in Bad Behavior By ROBERT SIMONSON BETRAYAL and treason and poor behavior. A lot of poor behavior.”
The playwright Theresa Rebeck is ticking off the common themes that unite her plays, which on the surface can seem quite unlike one another. Whatever the script — be it a comic solo show about one woman’s romantic tribulations (“Bad Dates”), an expressionistic dinner party held at the edge of Hades (“Omnium Gatherum,” which she wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros) or a cutting satire about status in the empty world of show business society (“The Scene”) — a lot of bad manners are on display in Ms. Rebeck’s dramatic universe.
There is at least one betrayal per scene in “Mauritius,” with which she will make her Broadway debut next month, and which, in keeping with the eclectic range of her work, has all the earmarks of a traditional thriller.
“I’m actually interested in poor behavior,” she said, calm as a monk. “I’m interested in what drives people to poor behavior. I do believe that there are monsters out there, and that they are monsters.”
Ms. Rebeck said she generally finds things “interesting.” She uses the word as a kind of defusing descriptor for many events and phenomena found in her plays and in her life. She found it interesting that it took her 35 tries to get one scene in “Mauritius” right. (“I never had to go through that before.”) She’s interested why an article is being written about her, specifically “in the anecdotal evidence of a lifetime, what sticks in people’s heads.” And it’s interesting that Kevin Bacon once told her, “If you just stick around long enough, they start respecting you.”
Theresa Rebeck has stuck around.
Born in Cincinnati and the recipient of three degrees from Brandeis University, Ms. Rebeck, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has brought forth roughly a play every season since “Spike Heels” in 1992 first established her reputation. But only now is she starting to command something approaching widespread respect. “Omnium” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004; “Bad Dates” was widely produced regionally following its 2003 debut; “The Scene” won mostly admiring reviews last season; and there’s this belated Broadway bow, the only original play by a woman to have its debut on Broadway this fall. Two volumes of her collected plays were published this summer, and Random House will bring out her first novel in March.
When pressed, Ms. Rebeck uneasily acknowledged that at some point recently she somehow “slid over the line” as a sort of theatrical eminence after so many years as one playwright among many. (She declined to give her age.)
“Show business is a struggle,” she said. “I certainly wish that I had just blasted on the scene and not had quite such a hard time. But there’s a great sense of the relief in that you don’t have to prove yourself anymore. You can just do your work.”
When colleagues are asked why they think Ms. Rebeck is enjoying her present wealth of professional activity, they cite her work ethic as often as her talent.
“She’s been around the block,” said Doug Hughes, who is directing “Mauritius.” “You go browsing in the Drama Book Shop, and there’s a lot of Rebeck on the selves. Her talent and her will have combined to insist that we pay attention.”
Julie White, who has appeared in four Rebeck plays and for whom Ms. Rebeck wrote “Bad Dates,” said: “You get the feeling that she just wakes up at night and writes a play.”
Ms. Rebeck, who has the warm but weary air of a working Brooklyn mother (which she is, of a 12-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter) and the slightly distracted demeanor of a tenured professor (which she is not), admits to being a workaholic. But she also claims to relish her compulsion.
“I think with most writers their neurosis is finishing things,” she said. “I have a different neurosis. I’m terribly anxious when it’s not finished. Then I become really difficult to live with.” So ingrained is her completion complex that, after switching majors from literature to dramatic writing, she went back and finished a half-completed degree in Victorian melodrama. Her husband, Jess Lynn, a former stage manager whom she met in college and married in 1990, once told her, “You’re like the opposite of Dorothy Parker, where you love writing and hate having written.”
But Ms. Rebeck stumbled upon the subject matter of “Mauritius” while she was avoiding work. One day, weary of writing, she began to surf the Internet and landed on a page itemizing the soon-to-be-auctioned stamp collection of a Spanish lord. “I became really fascinated by how beautiful the stamps were, and how strange and historic and utterly valuable,” she said. She began to delve into the world of philately and to puzzle over the monomania that fed its enthusiasts. “It became clear that there was some kind of hunger in these people that the collection of objects answered. I found that mysterious and moving — why that thing would satisfy your spirit in a deep and meaningful way.”
The play is about two half sisters who inherit a possibly valuable stamp collection and the three male philatelists who want to get their hands on it. “The stamps mean something desperate to all of them,” Ms. Rebeck said. “In some ways the stamps mean life to them. I’m a believer that all of us are broken in some way, and there’s a hole in our heart that we pour our own destruction or our children or our stamp collection into.“
Ms. Rebeck seems to share with her protagonists a strong sense of right and wrong. Her characters frequently pay for their principles. “The Family of Mann,” a comedy she has sometimes called a “documentary,” is largely an exposé of the wounds she suffered in the trenches of television writing, with which she has extensive experience. In addition to the occasional screenplay, from 1994 to 1997 she wrote for “NYPD Blue,” which brought her financial stability, a couple of Emmy nominations and regular accusations of having sold out. While she still writes the occasional pilot, she said she’s substantially absented herself from that world, calling it “a bit crackers for someone like me”
There are plenty of tales of Hollywood in “Free Fire Zone,” her recently published “writer’s guide” to working in film, television and theater. In it she relates, with comic aplomb and barely concealed fury, a few dozen terrifying war stories from her nearly 20 years in the business. She censors herself only to the extent of renaming figures with names like Caligula, Napoleon, Richard III and Satan.
Mr. Hughes, who recently started reading the book (“I hope I don’t end up in Volume 2,” he said), observed: “Theresa does not — and I commend her for this — she does not make nice for the sake of making nice. She’s a believer that pathologies and tainted motives and overreaction are important to expose. She sees that as her job, and it damn well is her job. Playwrights are here to make some trouble.”
Ms. Rebeck said she wrote the book as a “don’t kid yourself” answer to the many young writers who ask her for advice. But the tone of the book matches her plays, the simultaneous search and demand for values and decency.
“I think Theresa’s plays are about how to behave morally in today’s world,” said Will Frears, who directed the New York productions of “Omnium” and “The Water’s Edge.” “How is that possible?”
Ms. Rebeck herself put it more simply: “I don’t ever write about an amoral universe.” That, apparently, would not be interesting.
October 5, 2007 THEATER REVIEW Three Thugs and a Stamp Collection By BEN BRANTLEY The scrappy gamine with the determined chin is doing her best not to look frightened, but you can tell she is seriously scared. She should be. She has wandered into an all-male citadel of foul-talking, machine-gun-mouthed con artists, all with their eyes fixed hungrily on the same elusive prize. Yes, this young woman has dared to enter what appears to be an early play by David Mamet.
That, in any case, was how I felt watching Alison Pill, a rising young actress with attitude to spare, in “Mauritius,” the deftly formulaic play by Theresa Rebeck that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater. I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that “Mauritius” is a conscious hommage to “American Buffalo,” the 1975 drama that made Mr. Mamet’s name.
In “American Buffalo,” three squabbling men, one of them a raging sociopath, set out to gain possession of a rare coin collection. In “Mauritius,” three squabbling men, one of them a raging sociopath, set out to gain possession of a rare stamp collection. The essential difference between the two plays isn’t the change from numismatics to philately. It’s that Ms. Rebeck has added estrogen to a testosterone base.
In a season in which Ms. Rebeck is the only female dramatist with a new play on Broadway, it would be heartening to report that this hormonal readjustment makes “Mauritius” feel brand-new. Yet despite some passages that crackle with original life, the production mostly has the ersatz air of an expertly drawn blueprint on tracing paper.
Directed by Doug Hughes, “Mauritius” is neatly structured, fleetly paced, handsomely mounted and engagingly acted. It’s hard to imagine in theory a tastier ensemble than this one, which includes F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale and Katie Finneran.
And of course you can’t dismiss the pleasurable kick of watching a woman, Ms. Pill’s character, take on a slew of Mamet-esque thugs (although Mr. Mamet himself presented that situation in his 1987 film, “House of Games”). But the angry passion that has illuminated much of Ms. Rebeck’s work, including her social satires “Omnium Gatherum” (written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros) and “The Scene,” flickers only occasionally here. She goes through the motions gracefully in “Mauritius,” but she never makes the dance her own.
“Mauritius” caters efficiently to a hunger that Broadway hasn’t been gratifying in recent years. That’s the corkscrew-twist drama of suspense, a genre that was a theatrical staple for much of the 20th century, from “Gaslight” to “Deathtrap,” but is now largely the province of film and television. (Ms. Rebeck’s résumé includes extensive work on high-caliber TV cop and legal dramas, like “NYPD Blue.”)
The title “Mauritius” refers to an island off the coast of Africa from which a now highly collectible stamp, described as “the crown jewel of philately,” was issued in the age of Victoria. Like the Maltese Falcon (or for that matter, the nickel identified as an American buffalo), the Mauritius stamp is the fraught object of desire for an assortment of folks of shady backgrounds and motives, who meet in a dizzy roundelay of double-crosses.
Chief among the participants in this battle for control are the feisty, life-bruised Jackie (Ms. Pill) and the seemingly genteel Mary (Ms. Finneran), half-sisters who have nothing in common but a newly dead mother who left a stamp collection for them to fight over.
Then there’s the triumvirate of stamp-loving men with whom the sisters become embroiled: Philip (Mr. Baker), who runs a dusty philately shop; Dennis (Mr. Cannavale), an oily tongued dude of indeterminate employment; and Sterling (Mr. Abraham), an ophidian fellow with a hair-trigger temper and enough money to buy whatever he wants.
You don’t need me to tell you much more — right? — to figure out what the plot is like. The story, like John Lee Beatty’s terrific, self-changing sets, moves quickly and fluidly. It unfolds in a series of Darwinian power shifts and with staccato dialogue in which it’s impossible to tell who has the upper hand or who’s scamming whom.
Ms. Rebeck knows that teasing ambiguity is the key to holding an audience’s interest in a play like “Mauritius.” She has strewn her script with a multitude of mysteries, never to be entirely clarified, about past wounds, crimes and ordeals. “There is damage there,” Dennis says of Jackie, who is using him to peddle the stamps. “Damage. This is a desperate person.”
I’m a sucker for such film-noirish observations. But Ms. Rebeck never really makes good on the promises of her atmospheric dialogue, with its talk of the nature of obsession and how it is the errors that make people, like stamps, of interest. These are less complete characters than exercises in style: components in a ritual of negotiation on which they take turns commenting self-consciously.
The cast members fill the blank spots in their characters with varying success. Ms. Pill channels the sort of intense child-woman she embodied so brilliantly in “Blackbird” last season, and she still commands attention, though it may be time for her to switch gears.
And she achieves a warm chemistry with Mr. Cannavale, a young Emmy-winning actor who brings captivating vitality and charm to the stale part of a grandiloquent rogue. Ms. Finneran, a comic dazzler in her Tony-winning turn in the revival of “Noises Off,” does nicely by the manipulative Mary, a mistress of emotional contradictions and the most freshly conceived of the dramatis personae.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Abraham never quite dispel the impression that you have met more vividly drawn versions of their characters before. Mr. Abraham appears to be doing a mild variation on Ben Kingsley’s attention-getting portrait of a sadistic crime boss in the movie “Sexy Beast.” He’s appropriately slimy , and I liked the mother-hen inflections that suddenly pierced the vicious persona. But he is never truly frightening in the way Sterling has to be. Overall, even when folks become violent in “Mauritius,” you may find that your pulse rate stays low.
Watching performers as skilled as these tossing the ball of their characters’ power is diverting, for sure. And “Mauritius” is head and shoulders over recent Broadway examples of what the trade papers like to call suspensers, half-baked plays like John Pielmeier’s “Voices in the Dark” and Stephen Belber’s “Match.”
Fans of David Mamet, however, may want to wait until Mr. Mamet’s own new play, “November,” opens on Broadway early next year.
By Theresa Rebeck; directed by Doug Hughes; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Paul Gallo; original music and sound by David Van Tieghem; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Charles Means; general manager, Florie Seery; associate artistic directors, Paige Evans and Mandy Greenfield; production manager, Kurt Gardner. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive director; Daniel Sullivan, acting artistic director; and the Huntington Theater Company, Nicholas Martin, artistic director; Michael Maso, managing director. At the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Through Nov. 25. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
WITH: F. Murray Abraham (Sterling), Dylan Baker (Philip), Bobby Cannavale (Dennis), Katie Finneran (Mary) and Alison Pill (Jackie).
Review: 'Our House' By Mark Collins Thursday, January 24, 2008
DENVER -- In the play "Our House," Theresa Rebeck takes her satirical pen and stabs it into the jugular of reality television, then plants it firmly into the heart of television journalism.
The 90-minute piece, commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company, is receiving its world premiere at DCTC's Space Theatre.
Rebeck knows a thing or two about television. Alongside a growing list of plays, her writing credits include TV shows "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," "Third Watch" and "L.A. Law."
The writer doesn't hide her feelings about reality TV. Why should she? She's got something personal at stake. Reality television doesn't employ regular TV writers. Instead, it gives more power to the producers -- those individuals who come up with the next big idea about what "real" situation to discover or concoct, then manipulate and exploit.
In fact, reality TV first exploded in the wake of the 1988 writers' strike when TV producers needed to find programming to fill airtime. You can bet the current writers' strike will send us a couple of years' worth of new reality programming, too.
In "Our House," Rebeck cleverly uses the reality TV conventions the play skewers. It's a smart, funny, provocative and mostly entertaining piece of theater.
Conceived by Rebeck and Daniel Fish, who also directs the DCTC production, "Our House" is set in a home shared by four young adults. They're roommates, not unlike people sharing living quarters in reality TV shows such as "The Real World" or "Big Brother."
Perched in the center -- literally and figuratively -- of the house is Merv (Rob Campbell), a TV-addicted graduate student, who feuds with culture-snob roomie Alice (Kate Nowlin) about his television habits during commercials.
The space also serves as the office where Wes (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a network executive, seduces Jennifer (Molly Ward), the latest news-anchor hottie -- a talking head whose star is on the rise.
Before the play is over, the audience has had all the trashy television it could want. "Our House" is filled with sex, violence, celebrity and a hostage crisis.
In one way, though, "Our House" can't compete with what it's satirizing. As opposed to the best reality TV, or great sporting events or big breaking news stories covered on television, the play feels scripted.
The cast is excellent. Fish's direction is sharp, and there were some plot twists in the play that caught me by surprise. But it's a play. We know these actors have rehearsed these lines and these movements before and are now faking it for our benefit.
The actors bring immediacy and surprise to the stage, but not as much some reality TV. Not as much, say, as when Bryant, an animal-rights activist absolutely freaked when he thought he encountered a half-human, half-rat creature scurrying around a laboratory on the Sci-Fi Channel's gotcha show "Scare Tactics" a few years back. Now that was some good television.
As the saying goes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. That's the case even if that truth is a contrived, manipulated and heavily edited version of the truth, as it is in reality television.
Of course, what "Our House" does that reality TV doesn't is engage your head.
At its satirical best, "Our House" prompts us to examine what's behind the "journalism" we get on television. It paints an unflattering portrait of the TV news business.
In the play, journalistic ethics, not to mention objectivity, even-handedness and critical thinking, have less to do with what's on the news than ambition, good looks, ratings (money) and sensationalism.
"If it bleeds, it leads" is nothing new. In "Our House," though, the news reporter becomes part of the story in a narcissistic orgy of blood, hype and drama.
At one point, Merv asks Jennifer why she is covering a domestic squabble that's turned violent as if it's a national crisis story. "Why are you here covering this? Why aren't you out covering global warming?" he says.
All Jennifer can muster for an answer is "It's journalism!" But she's loud about her answer. Loud in the same way so many pundits-who-pass-as-journalists are on cable news stations these days. In the new brand of TV journalism, being emphatic about a point has replaced being well-reasoned, fair and factual.
At its most evocative, "Our House" reveals the absurd experience channel surfing can bring into our living rooms. Most of us know what it's like to flip from live coverage of a real-life tragedy to the utterly mundane to the glib, and back to the tragic.
In "Our House," sometimes we get all of it happening at once. Yet we can't change the channel. And if this were on television, we probably wouldn't want to.
Theresa Rebeck's first novel (Three Girls and Their Brother) came out in April of '08. I saw it on the new fiction shelf at a bookstore this weekend, but we were there for a reading/signing and I didn't have time to pick it up. Here's the Amazon listing...it's pretty detailed. A few nearby libraries have it so I've put it on hold.
So I finally got my copy of Three Girls and Their Brother. This is not the type of book I normally would pick up...a chatty, cynical commentary on the New York fashion/acting/celebrity scene. Granted, it is also a relationship novel focused on a fractured family, but this particular family is pretty unbelievable. Mom was one-dimensional and there was no reason given for her incredible lack of parental sense. A fairly big family secret got two or three sentences near the end of the novel. Maybe it's my odd Midwestern values (which were ridiculed in this story), but none of the characters rang true for me.
Also straining credulity were plot holes like almost no one caring that the 14 year old wasn't in school or getting tutored...or why a powerful NY agent decided to go to war with a couple of teenagers.
I also nearly put down the book after reading some of the dialogue Ms. Rebeck gave her narrators: using the word "snuck" instead of "sneaked" several times; and saying "real" instead of "really." I am certain Ms. Rebeck knows the proper words, so obviously it was a choice she made for the narrators' voices. However, I don't think she ever let them end sentences with prepositions, which is grammatically correct but makes every day conversation sound stilted and unnatural. Anyway, not the choices I would have made (with all due respect to the author, an award-winning playwright, script writer, and published novelist).
That said, I couldn't put the book down. I wanted to stop reading before I got to page 10, but I pushed through it. Before I knew it I was on page 40, then 100, then I was finished with it...all in a couple of hours. I commend Ms. Rebeck for making a subject I don't care about interesting, and for making me care about characters I don't even believe. One thing I really enjoyed and liked about the book was her choice to have each of the siblings narrate a section of the novel.
Theater Review: Capital Stage nails smart 'Scene' By Marcus Crowder Monday, Jan. 26, 2009
In Theresa Rebeck's wonderfully acerbic comedy "The Scene," losing what we have is shockingly easy, but getting what we want is painfully difficult. In the savagely funny new production by Capital Stage, a superbly matched quartet of actors slugs out a brutal victory in Rebeck's emotional cage match.
Rebeck, a New York-based playwright, also writes for the smart, lean television cop show "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." In "The Scene" she brings her backstage experiences of both worlds – theater and small screen – into full satirical focus.
Central to the production is Scott Coopwood's lightning rod, out-of-work actor, Charlie. Coopwood has always carried a singular kinetic demeanor – intense, intelligent, a little bit dangerous. His Charlie is a formerly successful New York stage actor now bitterly desperate for a job. The desperation has brought him to a party in a Manhattan penthouse where he may run into an old friend who reportedly has the green light for television series pilot.
The bitterness at groveling for work he doesn't really want causes him to verbally abuse a young ingenue he encounters at the party, but the engagement will ultimately change his life.
Clea, the vibrant, sexy and seemingly naive recent transplant from Ohio, is everything Charlie is not. She revels in the opulence of their immediate surroundings at the party rather than despises them. She finds the people exotic instead of banal and ultimately thinks Charlie's bile-filled disgust is an exhilarating affirmation of life. Elena Wright's glowing, unfettered Clea perfectly contrasts with Coopwood's imploding Charlie.
Completing the ensemble are the elegant Cristina Anselmo's dark, soulful turn as Stella, Charlie's wife, and an adept Ken Figeroid as Lewis, Charlie and Stella's good friend.
Director Stephanie Gularte allows her sinewy cast to flow with Rebeck's emotional dynamics as the tightly wound story moves from satire to near pathos. The smartly rotating set by designer Jonathan Williams establishes a needed pace, and the story always moves intensely forward.
Social Victims Unit Haviland Morris in Bad Dates at Long Wharf Stage II.
Thursday, February 12, 2009 New Haven Advocate Christopher Arnott
Read the actors' bios in the program at almost any regional theater show and you'll read how so-and-so has appeared on a New York–based TV cop show. Considering how few people are involved with it, the Long Wharf Stage II rendition of the chatty one-woman show Bad Dates has an even higher "Law & Order" percentage than most. Though she's best remembered as Caroline Mulford in Sixteen Candles and decades later as Dr. Claire Baxter in "One Life to Live," Haviland Morris is awash in gritty crime-yarn credits, including episodes of three separate "Law & Order" shows.
And so is the play's author, the eclectic Theresa Rebeck, who's been a writer and producer for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "NYPD Blue," and also packs a Ph.D. in Victorian Melodrama from Brandeis. Her plays — Loose Knit, Spike Heels and Mauritius among them — have become regional and small theater staples. Long Wharf did her art-world mystery Abstract Expression on its mainstage in 1998.
Bad Dates is not without criminal intent of its own. Its heroine is a single mother from Texas who's turned her career around, becoming a New York restaurateur. Now she's ready to try transforming her personal life — if she can evade some Romanian gangsters, a tax-fraud scheme and other pesky obstacles.
Echo Theatre to present Dallas-Fort Worth premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius
By Pegasus News wire Thursday, August 27, 2009
Echo Theatre, the award-winning company dedicated to producing works by women playwrights since 1998, presents Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius September 11-26 at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake.
Half sisters Jackie and Mary inherit a stamp collection containing two of the crown jewels of the stamp-collecting world - the Mauritius stamps. Issued in 1848, only 500 were printed and most have been lost forever. Are the stamps the real deal? Which sister truly owns them? And what about the three shady dealers who want the priceless postage? Mauritius is a dark comedic thriller filled with plot twists and double-crosses as the five characters go to any length to get what they want.
Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a widely produced playwright. As a screenwriter she has received two Emmy nominations for her work on NYPD Blue. She has also written for Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Third Watch. Her first novel, Three Girls and Their Brother, was named one of Booklist's 10 Best First Novels of 2008.
Mauritius is directed by Terri Ferguson and features Brandi Andrade, Tony Martin, David Meglino, Leslie Patrick and Brian Witkowicz.
Opening weekend performances (including preview) are Pay What You Can. All other performances: $20.
For complete information and to purchase tickets online at no charge visit: www.echotheatre.org. Seats may be reserved via email: firstname.lastname@example.org Box Office Phone: 214-904-0500.