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David Auburn has had three plays produced on Broadway: Proof, The Columnist and Summer, 1976, currently enjoying its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Daniel Sullivan has directed them all. That's not a coincidence.
Decades-long partnerships between directors and writers are increasingly rare, especially on Broadway. Yet despite their 29-year age gap, Auburn and Sullivan appear to be particularly well matched. "There's a care that David has about what he says and when he says it," Sullivan says. "I share that with him."
Before their inaugural collaboration, Auburn remembers seeing Sullivan's "extraordinarily good" mounting of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! on Broadway in 1998. Two years later, when Manhattan Theatre Club suggested Sullivan helm Proof, Auburn was thrilled.
"It was my first big production, but he didn't treat me as a junior partner in any sense," Auburn says. The playwright was just out of graduate school at Juilliard and virtually unknown. Yet Sullivan, already a three-time Tony nominee, agreed to direct because he was impressed by the script about the fraught relationship between two sisters in the wake of their mathematician father's death. "I thought it was an extraordinary bit of storytelling" Sullivan recalls, with "wonderfully playable roles that would attract wonderful actresses." He was right: Mary-Louise Parker snagged her first Tony Award as the enigmatic Catherine and Johanna Day was nominated for her performance as the controlling Claire. Sullivan and the play picked up Tony Awards, too, and Proof won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
While Sullivan says Auburn's works "always feel extremely different, both in concept and in the language," the dramatist is known for crafting powerhouse parts for female performers. He's done that again with Summer, 1976, a two-character memory play recounting the complex relationship between a pair of diametrically opposed women, Diana and Alice, portrayed by Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht. "The whole play is a dialogue between them," Auburn says. "They're in conversation with each other the whole time. Even when they're speaking to the audience, they're always adding to and responding to each other. That was a dimension I didn't quite clock until we got into the rehearsal room."
Inspired by Auburn's memories of his mother and the babysitting co-op she ran in the 1970s, Summer, 1976 began as a set of monologues and slowly evolved into "a play about friendship, and about the passage of time," he says. The drama also explores the dynamics of second-wave feminism as Diana and Alice, both young mothers, try to figure out their identities against the backdrop of America's Bicentennial Celebration.
"It's about the possibilities that were opening up or challenging people at that time, especially women," Auburn explains. "Even as a kid, you knew there was a lot in flux. There were divorces and strange arrangements among your parents and friends that you couldn't quite decipher."
Diana and Alice's relationship is brief, intense and life-changing for both. Slowly, it becomes clear neither has been completely honest with the other—or with herself. Their mutual trust allows them to serve as windows into each other's disparate lives and to spark personal change.
Trust is also at the heart of Auburn and Sullivan's working relationship. The former sees the latter as a supportive mentor as well as a valued colleague. "I learned how to be a working professional from Dan to a large extent. He shaped my sense of how to work in the rehearsal room," Auburn says. "He is very patient and understanding about the necessary ups and downs that everyone goes through over the course of a rehearsal period. He's an expert at helping everyone land at the end of the runway at the same time."
When asked if they had any advice for playwrights and directors looking to forge a fruitful collaboration, both men emphasized the importance of being on the same page. "There's something about a shared sensibility—you don't know right away if you have that. But if you do, it's really valuable," Auburn says.
"If in reading a play you want to see that play, then you just have to trust why you're there," Sullivan adds. "That's what everybody's working for. It starts and ends with the play."
Top image: Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.