"People are a bit desperate in my plays--maybe more desperate than we're used to seeing people be in plays," admits Theresa Rebeck, whose current play at the Second Stage, The Scene, traces the steep descent of Charlie, a self-destructive, chronically unemployed actor. "I go to other plays and think, Where's the desperation?"
Rebeck is only half-joking. Her plays, which have included Spike Heels, Bad Dates, The Family of Mann, and last year's The Water's Edge, also at Second Stage, are typically well-observed contemporary comic dramas, with plenty of edge but also plenty of well-earned laughs. The Scene is no exception: Though Charlie, played by Tony Shalhoub, is a selfish and largely unsympathetic character, and the damage he does to his marriage, his friendships and his career is startlingly real, the play moves with what Rebeck herself calls a "comic bounce," with a first act packed with bravura flip-out arias and a second act that gets darker without losing its witty sting.
"What the play really is about is that no matter what kind of spiritual journey you're on, the party goes on," Rebeck says. "The American party, which is sort of blinding us to our true feelings, goes on."
Rebeck knows a little bit about the cutthroat arena Charlie inhabits--a place where you're only as good as your last job and you often have to grovel for the next opportunity. Until 2004 she wrote for series television, including an award-winning six-year stint on NYPD Blue, and work on such shows as Brooklyn Bridge and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And while she still writes the occasional TV pilot to help support herself and her family, she knows better than to put all of her personal-validation eggs in the Hollywood basket.
"When you work in television, there is a moment where you know you're wading into the river of chaos," Rebeck says. "You're really entering Kafka territory. It's like in The Castle, where K. keeps moving from room to room: You're always in the castle, but you're never of the castle. I think that's a great lesson for Hollywood."
In The Scene, the incident that crushes Charlie's spirit is an abasing offstage meeting with a producer named Nick, who may be able to offer Charlie a role in his new pilot. Rebeck says she got the idea from a story the actor Peter Riegert once told her.
"He was asked to audition for Avalon," Rebeck recalls, referring to Barry Levinson's 1990 film about the Jewish American experience. "Peter had just had great success in Crossing Delancey, and he was saying, 'I was the pickle man--I was Mr. Jew!' " Despite this inarguable bona fide, Rebeck says, Levinson insisted that Riegert read for a part in his Jewish family saga. "Peter told me, 'I just couldn't do it.' Auditioning is always humiliating, but there are sometimes you just can't suck it up."
When she writes TV pilots now, Rebeck tries to be mercenary and think of them merely as money gigs, but it's hard not to get emotionally invested in their fortunes.
"Art is a gift and you give it freely, but when you're doing it for a living, you don't feel like it's received unless you get paid for it," Rebeck says. "But then it's not a gift anymore, is it?"
Point taken. But Rebeck needn't protest too much: Her gifts are well and rightly received.
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