The Bard of American Privilege 1

IT’S COMMON PRACTICE, though often somewhat unspoken, that when a seminal playwright learns that one of his older, popular works will see a major theatrical revival, he might revise — or update entirely — his original script, finding all the places where the plot’s mechanisms, characters’ speaking patterns or writer’s attempts at humor or historical context have been rendered obsolete. But when the American playwright Richard Greenberg learned last year that Second Stage Theater on Broadway would be mounting his 2002 play “Take Me Out” — about a fictional New York baseball legend named Darren Lemming who comes out as gay, to the confusion and sometimes disgust of his occasionally naked teammates (the primary setting is their locker room) — Greenberg, 62, decided there was no use trying to modernize it in advance of its April premiere.

When Greenberg first wrote the play, he intended it to presage an event that he had long anticipated as both a gay man himself and as a fanatical fan of the sport: the announcement by an active Major League player that he was gay. Some two decades later, that still hasn’t happened, which makes “Take Me Out” less of a period piece than might be presumed — and thus, more urgent now than when it was conceived. These contemporary implications extend beyond the rarefied realm of professional sports, for the story also includes an anxious accountant named Mason Marzac who is learning to harness his own sexuality as a cis white suit, a different kind of coming out that is more meaningful today for its subtlety. Yet to a new generation, that type of gay angst risks seeming anachronistic, and so before the director Scott Ellis signed on to the revival in 2016, he organized a reading of “Take Me Out” to ensure it still felt relevant. Four years later, Ellis thinks that the play is even timelier than it was, given the current administration’s “support,” he says, of the racism and homophobia that the story explores.

Revisited today, the deeper truth of Greenberg’s script also lies in its overarching metaphor, wherein baseball isn’t just a popular pastime but a stand-in for a particularly American kind of mythmaking. In the first act, Mason explains in a monologue why he has come to appreciate the game that he’s been introduced to by his new client, Darren:

And baseball is better than Democracy — or at least than Democracy as it’s practiced in this country — because unlike Democracy, baseball acknowledges loss.

While conservatives tell you, leave things alone and no one will lose, and liberals tell you, interfere a lot and no one will lose, baseball says: Someone will lose. Not only says it — insists upon it!

This speech goes on for a few pages, and it’s some of Greenberg’s strongest writing: clever and cleareyed, displaying the kind of flamboyant wit and wry affect that, early in his career, earned him the distinction of being called an “American Noël Coward,” after the early 20th-century British playwright and actor known for his gymnastic prose and upper-class affiliations. But to Greenberg, that comparison has always felt like false equivalency, a naïve supposition about the people he was chronicling — and the behavior he was lampooning, particularly among urban cultural elites — since his professional debut, “The Bloodletters,” premiered at Ensemble Studio Theater in 1984.

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“NOËL COWARD’S FANTASTIC, but all I could think was: What’s the use of having an American one?” Greenberg says to me one afternoon in December from across a vinyl booth at Chelsea’s Rail Line Diner, the playwright’s de facto office. In person, his round face and pale, swooping crest of hair suggest a kind of aged version of Philip Seymour Hoffman, especially Hoffman as Truman Capote, whom the actor played in the 2005 biopic. Greenberg adapted Capote’s 1958 novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” into a Broadway play in 2013, but the similarities between the two gay men have less to do with their characters’ lyricism and their glamorous-but-intellectual mise-en-scène — one full of massive Manhattan homes and the rich people who inhabit them — than the way Greenberg goes about his life: The only guests allowed in his duplex apartment, where he’s lived alone, across the street from the diner, for 15 years, seem to be the few close female friends for whom he enjoys cooking elaborate dinners. Chief among them is the actress Patricia Clarkson — one of Greenberg’s “swans,” as Clarkson has referred to these women — who graduated from Yale’s School of Drama with him in the ’80s and has remained in communication ever since, occasionally interrupting our diner conversation by texting photographs of her niece’s toddler.

“I don’t know why America would have a Noël Coward — it just seems culturally inappropriate,” Greenberg continues after cooing over the child on his phone screen. “And then you think, ‘Well, how can I be less like that today?’” Not unlike one of his characters, he’s now midway through a long monologue about something someone said about his aesthetic decades ago, but the point lingers long after he’s caught his breath: Greenberg isn’t interested in his work sounding or feeling like any of his forebears, legendary as they may be. Nor is he invested in chasing trends: not structural trickery, or set-driven surprise, or audience participation or any other innovations currently informing the theater; instead, he remains a realist, a classicist driven by story above all, mostly because, he says, “It’s possible to be stunningly derivative trying to do something other people are doing.” And despite being one of America’s most established playwrights, having had around 30 shows either on or off Broadway staged in the past four decades, he’s also not really concerned with repeating any of his trademark flourishes. “What I don’t see is someone relying on what’s worked in the past,” says the actress Maddie Corman, who in 2016 appeared in Greenberg’s “The Babylon Line” at Lincoln Center Theater. “Richard is someone whose work is always pushing forward, which is rare. Once you’ve become successful at something, people have expectations — and I don’t think he cares about that.”

Indeed, in an era when some playwrights have become as famous as the actors in their casts, when the experience of going to the theater, the whole Instagram-the-Playbill moment of it all, is often just as motivating to ticket buyers as the play itself, Greenberg remains one of the few dramatists who’s remained relevant simply for what he’s put on the page. Though he’s workshopped new pieces often, several directors and actors told me that he doesn’t meddle too much in the casting or the staging; in fact, he goes to rehearsals only begrudgingly. Instead, he sends copious notes, and his scripts’ stage directions communicate his intentions. These parentheticals are typically among his most evocative lines; a memorable example from “Take Me Out” goes: “Anyway, those Greeks … they … (i.e.: were big faggots). And they created … (He makes a big circular gesture with his arms to indicate ‘civilization and stuff’).” Greenberg also has never written for streaming television, which, crowded with well-spoken, almost implausibly quick-witted characters, is undoubtedly indebted to his plays, whether it’s HBO’s “Succession” or Apple’s “The Morning Show.” And given his decades of output, relatively few of his plays have seen a revival, partly because he feels that certain lines reek too embarrassingly of youth.

In that sense, even the political undertones of “Take Me Out” now feel archaic, which is why the only change he insisted upon was that the production take place not in the present, which is how it was originally written, but sometime in the mid-90s, when Greenberg was actually conceiving the play. “Before this came together, I was looking forward to that democracy monologue as something that marked how different things were between that time and now. But it’s just incomprehensible: forces — anger, for instance — exist now that didn’t exist then,” he says. “I like things that alert us to how different the past was as opposed to how similar.”

IF THERE ISN’T a certain kind of Greenberg play, there is a certain kind of Greenberg voice, often personified by a well-educated, somewhat snobbish, maybe multigenerationally rich or at least upwardly mobile New Yorker who speaks as fast as a character in an Aaron Sorkin drama and is a little mean, perhaps a bit tipsy, somewhat disappointed with the direction their life has taken — the sheer sluggishness of middle age — but fully cognizant of the fact that they have it (comparatively) good, self-aware in the sense that they know whatever they’re saying is, invariably, funny and smart and sad. Often a single line can convey all three of those emotions at once. In 1988, when “Eastern Standard” first landed the playwright on Broadway, his characters would have been called yuppies, and Greenberg their foremost chronicler; since then, many theatergoers have taken to calling them — and Greenberg — “privileged,” a word that the playwright himself avoids, even as it’s become common American vernacular.

Greenberg, like many of his characters, grew up in the shadow and thrall of New York City, in East Meadow, Long Island, the younger son of a homemaker, Shirley, and a movie-theater executive, Leon, alongside his older brother, Edward, an investment banker. The playwright got an undergraduate degree in English at Princeton, then headed to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in English literature but dropped out and transferred to Yale’s playwriting program after submitting a script he wrote while cutting class. As a younger man, though, Greenberg harbored a fantasy of being an architect because, as he recalls, “The people on Long Island used to go on weekends to model houses and dream about a better space.”

In “Eastern Standard” — which pits four striving urbanites against one another’s romantic advances, career complacency, gentrification, a naïve waitress, a grifting homeless woman and the shame and tragedy of AIDS-era Manhattan — it’s perhaps no coincidence that the central action revolves around the Hamptons home of a suicidal architect named Stephen Wheeler. By act two, he’s quit his job at a prestigious Manhattan firm and, drunk on wine during a dinner party with his friends, goes on a shouty tirade that encapsulates Greenberg’s skill at leavening seriousness with absurdity, crafting plays that are neither comedies nor dramas but both: “I’m free. No more — building ziggurats on Third Avenue! No more — acts of — edificary warfare against Manhattan!” Stephen begins. “And we’ll live like the disgusting rich — and we’ll drink till we puke — and have plastic surgery.” Finally, despite his friends’ protestations, Stephen finishes by both debasing and celebrating himself: “I am going to sound like such a … such a … the ultimate bleeding-heart liberal … How do you like that — I’m 30 and I’ve finally acquired politics!”

According to the actress Kate Arrington, who’s appeared in five of Greenberg’s plays, such two-faced people are a thrill for actors to embody — “Your mind is working as quickly as your character’s, and you wish you could respond [in real life] with such grace,” she says — and for ticket buyers to witness. “Every single line can be a laugh line,” Arrington says, “flexing those muscles that most playwrights just don’t have, but also incorporating … real existential terror.” In an essay he wrote nearly a decade ago, Greenberg compared sitting in a theater to a “hostage situation”; he believes that a play that’s not entertaining is ultimately a failed play.

To many theater nerds, “Eastern Standard” is a riot, the kind of literature that makes them want to flee their small towns and move to Manhattan. It’s not merely funny, though. It’s also one of the earliest Broadway plays that put AIDS on the stage, written from within the crisis, in the years when more political shows like Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” (1985) were mostly relegated to downtown. “Eastern Standard” was also one of the first plays to treat gayness with a kind of benign, straight-adjacent regularity that we take for granted today but that had, at the time, evaded the pioneering, altogether campier queer works that preceded it in New York, including Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” (1968) and Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” (1982). To some, though, Greenberg’s intentionally ridiculous play failed to treat the HIV epidemic with the appropriate gravitas — a criticism taken seriously by the playwright himself, who has blocked it from being revived on Broadway. “There’s something that I now recognize as being symptomatic of a young playwright: that a premise would do the work,” he says. “And for me, the premise was deliberately incongruous: I was taking all of this mayhem that was going on at the time and putting it in a clearly inappropriate format.” To him, the most successful works are those that ring true when they premiere and then eventually become not “dated” but “period,” particularly when viewed in contrast with the present. “I want the plays to be both contemporary and time capsules,” he says.

Following the attention from “Eastern Standard,” Greenberg decided it would be best to just stay home. “He got penalized by that word ‘prolific,’ used in a pejorative way, and that was the turning point,” says the actor and director Joe Mantello, who staged the original “Take Me Out” and several subsequent Greenberg plays. Over the years, the playwright has often been called reclusive — “A Dramatic Shut-In” was the hyperbolic title of Alex Witchel’s 2006 New York Times Magazine profile — though it’s perhaps more correct to say that, not unlike the Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela or the American novelist Don DeLillo, he merely possesses monomaniacal commitment to his creative process. “I don’t do anything live,” he told me when we met at the diner. “I’m not even here right now.”

THESE DAYS, GREENBERG says, he spends afternoons wandering around Chelsea or merely pacing around his apartment, talking aloud to himself until he happens upon a thought or a line of dialogue that he wants to commit to the page. He’s singularly focused on his writing to the point that even his hobbies follow a neat narrative arc: He’s deeply invested in the lives of his friends’ children and young relatives, including ones he’s never met in real life, delighting in their guilelessness, and in watching, Arrington says, “as these human beings evolve.” He’s an accomplished cook and ardent fan of “The Great British Baking Show,” the format of which, he says, he finds soothing: “A causes B which causes C which causes D.” His actress friends come over often for meals; when they’re not there, Greenberg, who suffers from insomnia, emails them late into the morning. “He sees a lot of tasks as distractions — I have heard him say a day he leaves the house is a day he will not write,” Corman adds.

However, Greenberg will soon have to leave the house more than he might have hoped. “Take Me Out” is one of the Broadway season’s most anticipated productions, with its famous cast (featuring the television actors Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jesse Williams as Mason and Darren, respectively) and its focus on what we now call intersectionality: The most explosive scene involves a character using racial epithets to describe his teammates as fans turn against a mixed-race, queer, once-beloved player, described on the first page as “the one-man-emblem-of-racial-harmony stuff.” Though you could never call Greenberg’s work diversity-minded, his most moving plays have always focused on the wounds of the past inflicted upon the realities of the present — whether it’s the aging doyennes in their 14-room Central Park West apartment in 2014’s “The Assembled Parties” or the generation-jumping cast of 1997’s “Three Days of Rain,” in which each actor plays both parent and child. “Take Me Out,” reconsidered today, is necessarily retrospective.

That doesn’t mean that Greenberg isn’t still writing to try to understand the present moment. In the wake of the 2016 election, when he was, he says, “steeped in that kind of weird, gobsmacked feeling of hopelessness,” he decided to use a commission to create a play that he hoped would bring him out of his malaise. The result, “The Perplexed,” which will open at Manhattan Theater Club in March, harks back to his earliest scripts, a cloudy brew of many characters with many back stories, all slowly unraveling on the wedding day of two young people from a pair of rich, white, old-guard New York families. If the conceit sounds a bit retrograde for our current mood, Greenberg was aware of that from the outset; a quote from the American writer Anand Giridharadas provides the play’s epigraph: “Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?”

Greenberg’s attempts to answer that question involve a matriarch who’s a local official — inspired by his recent habit of watching public-access political hearings in lieu of MSNBC — and her “puppyish” 20-something son, Micah, who has, of late, been “going bareback for Prepboyz-dot-com.” Whereas Greenberg’s earlier plays tended to be romantic, this script is much more explicit: Micah’s into water sports (people urinating on one another), though he insists that his nascent pornography career, at least until his family learns about it, is a matter of personal privacy. After decades of staying at home, self-isolation has become a moral stance for Greenberg — which isn’t to say he’s not still watching the city beyond his windows and the ways people Micah’s age are thinking and behaving.

In fact, one could read “The Perplexed” as an early adopter’s lament for discretion as a form of defense, a shield against cancel culture. “It’s a scary time to be public in any way,” says Greenberg, who’s never participated in social media. “It’s such a combatively social world; you’re just in the line of fire all the time. Yet some people seek it more than ever, because somehow, I guess, it’s become identified with existing.” In a way, he’s arguing for his new play’s relevance, but also for the return of “Take Me Out” — in which Darren is, ultimately, punished for coming out — and, above all, his own way of living. Once again, though, it’s one of his characters, with their layered messages, who gets the last word: “The world (not your fault), is an increasingly horrifying place that constantly reminds us of our creatureliness,” Micah tells a family friend in his 60s when asked about his new career. “And I think for me, the porn is a kind of fetishism, like a shrinking of the overwhelming vastness of existence.” Micah’s sex work, of course, can be seen as a metaphor for Greenberg’s own work — a way to write himself, and his audience, out of the encroaching dread.