Los Angeles may not be the first stop for David Rabe's 1984 "Hurlyburly," opening Thursday at the Westwood Playhouse. But it's still a homecoming of sorts.
Written about a time in the mid-'70s when the playwright was meandering through a period of post-divorce blues and extended adolescence, the play captures a cynical show biz world that is unarguably our own. In a house high in the Hollywood Hills, human contacts are made, broken and thrown away; drugs are easy, sex is casual, love is suspect--and morality struggles only sporadically to raise its old weary head.
Yet, in Rabe's view, "the play isn't about Hollywood. It's much bigger than that. It's about feelings and addiction: addiction as a way of avoiding feeling, as a way of coping--or not coping."
The production features Danny Aiello, Belinda Bauer, Michael Lerner, Sean Penn, Scott Plank, Jill Schoelen and Mare Winningham. The director: Rabe, in his professional debut.
"I wrote this in the most thoughtless way," said the 48-year-old Iowa-born playwright. "I tend to write in the hope of getting access to my unconscious. I don't outline and I don't premeditate. What usually happens is that I start hearing the dialogue in my head, in a certain tone, three or four exchanges. Then it can just go."
With this play, the structure took shape after the fact.
"It's been a teacher to me," he said emphatically. "I created it in a very rapid, unconscious manner. Then I found out what was inside it."
Which is? The playwright shook his head bemusedly and took a sip of tea. "Writers and artists are always saying, 'I can't say what it is.' If I could (describe it), I wouldn't have to do it. I could write it in a sentence.
"Sure, I know the play. There are parts of it that are familiar. But the whole thing is informing me. I know that sounds strange, because I'm supposed to have written it--and I did. It just takes a while to figure out."
As did Rabe's decision to direct his own work. "I really loved the time I did 'Goose and Tom Tom' (a workshop production at Lincoln Center starring Sean Pean, Madonna, Harvey Keitel, Lorraine Bracco and Barry Miller). When I had people I was comfortable with, it was really fun. Prior to that, I hadn't felt comfortable. I'd tried directing one or two times--and had failed."
(The Los Angeles Theatre Center cited the playwright's directorial inexperience when it denied him the reins on "Hurlyburly" earlier this season; Rabe withdrew the play. He agrees with published accounts of the incident, and does not elaborate.)
"I couldn't handle the personal side of directing," he said of his past difficulties. "Now I seem to be able to. You know, it's \o7 social\f7 . You're dealing with people, with their energies, their good and bad days.
"Before, that stuff would throw me. It wasn't that I didn't know how to do the play or do the work or have good ideas about directing. But if someone became volatile, I'd lose my sense of self and become volatile too; I'd join them."
Speaking of deportment, the playwright (who lives in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., with wife Jill Clayburgh and children Jason, 16--by his first marriage, Lily, 6 and Michael, 3) has only good notices for his "Hurlyburly" cast--including the oft-maligned Penn.
"I'd thought of Sean as a film actor," he said. "But I was amazed at his stage technique. It's very sound."
Rabe is also a defender of Penn's media battles: "You know, frequently those people are not just saying, 'May we have your picture?' There's a lot of provocation--and the world doesn't seem to know that. He's a very passionate guy, a brave fellow. But I think he sees that it's pointless to get provoked all the time."
Playwrights, Rabe believes, also carry a bit of a cross. "There's a notion about playwrights not knowing what the hell they're doing--like you're some sort of mad woman who has to be kept in the back room," he said. "A lot of playwrights don't want to deal with that (treatment). But with these actors, I feel so connected. It's also very creative--almost like working at the typewriter, only it's with people."
And wearing two hats? "Actually it's all kind of the same," he said of the combined duties. "In a sense, the playwright is not too present--or so integrated that there's really no separation. Objectivity? There's isn't any reason to be objective. I think being subjective is the secret to any artistic endeavor: Not to be self-indulgent, but to be deeply subjective and bring that forward."
The catalyst for the production, he explains, was Penn. "Sean was doing this film I wrote (the upcoming "Casualties of War") for Brian De Palma in Thailand, and he came back to New York to visit Madonna--who was then in 'Speed-the-Plow.' He called me one day and said, 'I feel like doing a play next, not a movie. Should I read '(The Basic Training of) Pavlo Hummel,' and if I want to do it, will you direct?'