The last time playwright Peter Parnell was in town in connection with a play of his was in 1977, when his "Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World" opened at the Cast Theatre.
Parnell is back making last minute adjustments on his "Romance Language," which opens Jan. 23 at the CTG/Mark Taper Forum for a six-week run, after which it moves to San Diego's Old Globe (the theaters are co-producing).
In 1977, Parnell was a dark, soft-spoken, unguarded, ethereally slight 25-year-old who peered around himself like someone discreetly conscious of having awakened on an alien sphere. Parnell is from New York, a sharp, rectilinear city that grudgingly admits light to its inhabitants. Los Angeles is open and gradual; there's all this brightness to contend with.
Now, at 34, the dewiness of youth has burned off, the face has hardened slightly and threads of gray have begun to appear in his hair. Little has changed otherwise. His frame has kept its almost birdlike fragility (indeed, one of his plays is about a boy who can fly) and he still walks with that peculiarly New York bounce, as though the days of one's youth were buoyed on the springiness of Keds sneakers.
There's still the sense too of a writer so earnestly at work trying to pin his thoughts on words, or words on his thoughts, that he doesn't think about being self-protective. He edits himself in mid-sentence, turns things around, starts a line and erases it in the air. He continuously discovers. For example, on theater in New York, he said:
"I love New York, but right now dinner has become the event. You plan your night around dinner with friends. A whole bunch of new restaurants is opening. It's harder to get people to go to the theater. I'm not talking about 'Cats.' There's a need for businessman's theater. And there's a need for kids to see musicals too. That's OK. But theater is about language and listening. It doesn't roll over you, like TV or movies.
"You know what too? I never thought of this. In theater, you need a first-rate voice and a vision to get over. You need that individual strength of imagination. In film, you have several people to put something wonderful together. Theater is a tough medium to make work."
Parnell is one of those rare individuals who can envision the entire arc of his career. For that reason he's not insecure about being a slow worker. His entire oeuvre, in addition to the slight but affecting "Scooter," consists of four plays, one of which, "Hyde of Hollywood," hasn't been done yet (it will be produced later this year in New York).
Of "Romance Language," he said, "This play is historical, but it's not a Robert Bolt play, which doesn't mean that I don't think Robert Bolt is a fine writer. Really, I'm interested in taking a genre and turning it around. My plays come out of a kind of dream literature. 'Romance Language' takes real historical figures and puts them in a fabulous dream environment. Walt Whitman is asleep, having just finished reading 'Huckleberry Finn.' The character of Huck comes to the window and says he's hiding from the police. They wind up traveling West together.
"At the same time, Charlotte Cushman, a famous 19th-Century actress, is performing 'Hamlet' in New York. She's visited by Emily Dickinson. Cushman falls in love with her and casts her as Ophelia. They travel West together.
"Louisa May Alcott is returning from Europe with a Tahitian boy who's a medium. She wants the boy to bring her Henry David Thoreau. They travel West together. Everyone meets in Little Big Horn. The last 20 minutes of the play are spent in heaven.
"The problem with the play is the first few minutes, getting everything going. I'm re-doing scenes. I don't know if I've solved it. The play is flawed. . . ." He paused. He didn't like the word flawed. He settled for "the play has risks. It's bumpy, but that's the joy of it. It'll never be crystal clear."
Maybe it shouldn't be, he implied. Parnell is an open, gracious man, but he doesn't like to be pinned down.
"I'm not the kind of person who thinks about what I'm thinking about. I'm not comfortable with that kind of self-consciousness. I tend to be a doer; I like to plunge ahead. If there was a thread through my work . . it's been described as something rather romantic, often blending 19th-Century romanticism--unrequited love, lost innocence--in a more modern context.
" 'The Sorrows of Stephen,' where a man identifies so strongly with Goethe's 'Sorrows of Werther' that his life becomes the novel, is in a hip, urban vein. 'The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket' is an adult fairy tale." Indeed, Scooter's utilitarian friend and admirer comes to a much more sober and mature end than the heroic, idealistic, fabulous Scooter himself. "Sorrows" was written, or begun, right after Parnell returned to New York from Los Angeles and joined the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio.