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From Riches to Rags . . . and Back : Polish Playwright Makes a Serendipitous Trip to the U.S.A.

November 08, 1987|JACEK KALABINSKI

NEW YORK — Janusz Glowacki sits in his cramped apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side and warns the visitor: "Watch out, if you relax too much you may find yourself on the floor, this sofa works like a slide.

"Apart from this, it's a perfectly good sofa. I picked it myself from a garage pile in a very fashionable neighborhood--Madison and 76th Street, I think!"

Glowacki, whose play, "Hunting Cockroaches," opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum, has known his visitor for 30 years. We met as freshmen at Warsaw University. He majored in Polish literature, I majored in journalism. (I eventually settled in the United States in 1983.)

"If someone had told us then," he says, "that in 1987 you would be interviewing the aspiring playwright Glowacki in New York, we would have laughed our heads off."

FOR THE RECORD - A Clarification
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 22, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 58 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Calendar has learned that in his interview with Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki (Nov. 8), free-lance writer Jacek Kalabinski interspersed actual quotations from Glowacki with previously published material from an essay that Glowacki had written for the New York Times. Attribution should have been made to Glowacki's essay. Glowacki's drama "Hunting Cockroaches" plays through Dec. 13 at the Mark Taper Forum.

At 49, Glowacki is an aspiring playwright

--again. In Poland he had published 10 books. His plays and screenplays had enjoyed immense popularity. As a personality, he had been one of Warsaw's major social attractions--"the ironical and witty playboy" Glowacki. He never had any financial problems.

But again--that was in Poland.

"Only recently, I stopped having this nightmare: I am back in Poland and everything is back to normal except I do not have an exit visa, which I need to get back to my home in New York. An archetypal refugee nightmare. Still, it's better than waking up in Poland only to find that you are a Japanese spy."

When Glowacki writes, producers listen. When Glowacki talks, you may want to listen.

"How did I find myself in America? Unintentionally. In December of 1981, I came to London for the opening of my play 'Cinders' at the Royal Court Theater. I had bought supplies of food for my family in Poland with my royalties and was about to go back when martial law was declared at home.

" 'Cinders' was a great success. I calculated that by eating the food I had intended for Christmas in Poland, I should have enough money to last three weeks in England. Then I would turn to alcohol.

"But, quite unexpectedly, Bennington College invited me to lecture during the spring semester. I convinced the immigration officer at the American Embassy in London that the reason for my visit to the United States was not specifically to spread venereal disease or to assassinate the President, but to fulfill my dream of having a play on Broadway.

"After a semester at Bennington, I decided to settle in New York. So in the winter of 1982, dressed in my immigrant best, I stood solemnly in a long line for half-priced tickets to a Broadway play.

"It struck me as rather odd that I did not see the names of Great American Playwrights on the marquees, but I convinced myself that a generation of New Great American Playwrights had come along that I didn't know about. The Americans surely knew what they were doing.

"Eventually, I met an off-Broadway producer. The first question he asked me was, 'How many characters are there in your play?' When I said 14, he asked that I reduce the number to seven, because there had never been a play off-Broadway with a cast larger than seven. I refused.

"The play was called 'Fortinbras Gets Drunk.' Later I rewrote it with seven characters, but it has never been staged. It seems that very few people know who Fortinbras is. Every producer eliminates him from 'Hamlet,' trying to get the number of characters down to seven."

"Meanwhile, my wife and daughter joined me. Now I had to find a place to live and furnish it.

"That brought me back to Broadway. After finding a very good king-size mattress, a working black-and-white TV (which was subsequently stolen from our apartment) and a moderately worn Oriental rug at a garbage pile, we loaded them on a cart and pushed it through Midtown Manhattan towards our place.

"It was a hot, sticky day and on Broadway the mattress began to slip. So here I was, in the middle of Broadway, all sweaty and exhausted, trying to cope with junk I would never have looked at in Poland.

"On the other hand, four of my one-act plays, which in Poland were rejected by censors, had just been produced off-Broadway, and I made off with $250. Encouraged, I sent copies of 'Cinders,' together with the reviews from London, to 48 theaters.

"Finally Joseph Papp read the play and decided to produce it. 'Cinders,' which opened at the Public Theater in February 1984, got very good reviews. The run of the play was extended twice and I gave a few interviews for very sophisticated periodicals with very few readers.

"A few theaters in Europe bought rights, which gave me an incentive to work on 'Hunting Cockroaches.' By that time we moved to this apartment on the Lower East Side and invested in four sets of window bars and eight locks.

"All this is reflected in 'Cockroaches.' It was staged first in Woodstock, N.Y., and then Arthur Penn agreed to direct it. And it became a success.

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