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What's a Family Without History?

Richard Greenberg gets in a few Orange County digs as he explores what happens when success replaces memories.

August 27, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

Playwright Richard Greenberg was strolling near South Coast Repertory, his artistic home away from home, when a voice stopped him from behind.

"Do you really hate us, Mr. Greenberg?"

The amiable, round, gentle-natured Manhattanite turned to face a friendly but slightly peeved couple from Orange County. He didn't need to ask what they meant.

It was June 1999, and Greenberg's "Everett Beekin" had just been given a public reading as a work-in-progress at South Coast Rep, the Costa Mesa theater that has now, with the impending premiere production of "Beekin," birthed five of his plays since 1991.

At the reading, Orange County playgoers discovered that Greenberg had trained his characteristic satiric wit close to home, starting with a scathing monologue set on the footbridge that connects the county's artistic hub--South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center--to its most sumptuous shopping mall, South Coast Plaza.

"The life here is good and free and new, quite new," intones one of Greenberg's characters, a tour guide with a sardonic streak that the chamber of commerce types who have enlisted her to indoctrinate visitors probably would not appreciate. "Autochthonous tribes are, I'm afraid, limited to fields of lima beans, and if you wish to meet indigenous people you'd be well-advised to loiter on the high school playgrounds. Don't do that, by the way. . . . Eat our food, romp on our beaches, eschew irony and have a nice day."

The play, which opens Sept. 8 on the theater's main stage after a week of previews, does not eschew irony. It is a complex work with a scope that is cross-generational, cross-continental and inter-ethnic between Jews and WASPS. Though laugh lines abound, it leaves a profoundly sad echo as Greenberg makes us contemplate how a horror of death can drive families to obliterate chunks of their past, leaving their progeny adrift and hollow at the core.

The script reads as something of a companion to "Three Days of Rain," a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998. Like "Rain," which premiered at South Coast Rep in 1997, "Beekin" focuses on the irretrievable gaps in a family's story. Also like "Rain," it features one act in which we see forebears, and another about their descendants who live with the void caused by what's been forgotten or kept secret.

If Greenberg wanted to pitch "Everett Beekin" to Hollywood, the sell could go something like this: "First you see this ethnic Lower East Side Jewish family in 1948, kind of Philip Roth stuff where somebody is munching brisket and the table talk is all daggers tipped with poisonous wit. Jump ahead 50 years and segue to the last part of "Annie Hall," where an emissary from back East gets to crack sourpuss jokes at how phony and superficial all these Southern California airheads are. Two of them--including Ev, the title character who gets jilted at the altar--are young, sexy Orange County beach kids who can't muster the vocabulary to utter a complete thought. Laughs all the way."

Is Greenberg concerned that his play might be perceived as mining comic turf already famously tapped by Roth (whom he adores) and Woody Allen? His answer is as adamant a "no" as can be conveyed in a mild, pleasant tone of voice.

"I can't not use my material because others have gone there before. I'd have to invent a planet or something."

Greenberg, who wears a white sport jacket to an interview in a conference room at South Coast Rep, says this while talking comfortably and freely for a newspaper article that on principle he will not read. The playwright was the subject of a small furor in the theater world in 1988-89 when his satire, "Eastern Standard," touched several cultural hot buttons by interweaving AIDS, homelessness and the upwardly mobile surge of young urban professionals. The fuss netted him a profile in People magazine--and landed him in a funk of nervousness and depression that he labels "a self-diagnosed breakdown." Ever since, his antidote has been to assiduously avoid reading anything written about him.

*

Roth or no Roth, Greenberg, 42, claims a right of ownership in the world of his fathers. The characters in the first act of "Everett Beekin" speak in Yiddish-ized rhythms and inflections that are familiar from literature and screen but have been virtually missing until now from his own work. Greenberg typically has written characters--Jewish and WASP alike--who sound like the urbane, over-educated products of the sort of academic trifecta he hit with degrees from Princeton and the Yale Drama School sandwiched around a brief tenure as a doctoral candidate in literature at Harvard.

Greenberg says he had no problem making his old Royal electric typewriter clatter in a different, unmistakably ethnic, New York Jewish dialect.

"I'd heard it all my life," the Long Island-raised playwright said. "It was in all the rooms I entered."

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