‘I’m not a good traveller,” says the Tony-winning, New York playwright Richard Greenberg, on the line from his Manhattan apartment. “I’m talking to you from a swivel chair which makes me feel kind of global,” he adds self-mockingly.
It’s a shame Greenberg doesn’t travel well. If he did he could be in London for the opening of his 2009 play The American Plan, which has just transferred to the West End from the Theatre Royal Bath. Set in 1960 in the Catskill mountains, it focuses on the relationship between Lili Adler — daughter of an overbearing German-Jewish mother who took “the last boat out” of Nazi Germany — and Nick, an all-American Wasp who seemingly has none of the baggage carried by the offspring of women such as Lili’s domineering mother Eva, played by Diana Quick in David Grindley’s production at the St James Theatre.
Greenberg should be more famous. For one, he may be the most prolific current playwright writing in English.
Wikipedia numbers his output at over 30, including adaptations. But it is the sheer quality of this smart, witty American dramatist’s plays, the landmark Three Days of Rain among them, that sets him apart. They contain dialogue so rich the New York Times said it makes you want to give up conversation. Sometimes they fold time like the opposite ends of a piece of paper so that eras separated by decades collide. How does a playwright this busy find inspiration?
“It’s pretty much scraps of things. I believe that everything you’re thinking about at any one time can probably be made to belong together,” he explains. For The American Plan, he went back to a moment from his 20s which formed the basis of the relationship between Eva and her daughter. “There was this young woman who was a friend of mine very briefly and died very shockingly. And there we all were at this wonderful Upper West Side apartment, just to talk and share memories. And everyone was very young because they were the girl’s contemporaries. And so the memories tended to be light and cheering. Everyone was trying to recollect her in a very warm way. This went on for a while until the grandmother, who had been sitting very still, asked if she could speak. She said: ‘We’ve all been talking so beautifully about her memory. Let me tell you about discovering my darling’s body.’ And suddenly she started talking in a very severe, appropriately morbid, heavily accented way about blood on the side of the bed. As she was speaking I watched her daughter — the mother of the girl who died — just listening. She was terribly still and her eyes were at half-mast, her mouth was working in a very particular way. I realised that she was trying to swallow her mother’s words before they came out. She was trying to ingest it all to make it go away. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Eva is from a rarified German Jewish background. The people populating Greenberg’s most recent offering, the Broadway hit The Assembled Parties — nominated for a best play Tony, the award he won for Take Me Out — hail from less salubrious Russian-Jewish stock, like Greenberg.
“I wanted to get back to those people — first generation, American-born voices; children of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. It has a kind of delightfully mingled tone because it had an urban New York quality and was also sprinkled with Yiddish. I found it fascinating and flexible and delightful.”