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A Calling He Could Ignore No More

Gregory Murphy had no interest in theater, but he longed to write and the tale could only be a play.

October 29, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

A year ago, Gregory Murphy avoided answering his telephone for fear it would be one of several credit card companies calling to dun him.

The playwright had achieved modest success with his first work, "The Countess," a historical drama about a strange-but-true romantic triangle among eminent Victorians. But there wasn't any cash coming in from the production--even though it had run six months in small off-Broadway theaters.

His dreams as a writer had been too long deferred. At 47, Murphy had his first whiff of public acceptance, so the Manhattan resident plunged ahead. He cut back on, then quit, his longtime job proofreading legal documents so he could concentrate on his writing--including a screenplay of "The Countess." He got three months behind on his rent and charged other living expenses.

"Once you're involved in something like that, it's like being a drug addict," the tall, lean, soft-spoken and unassuming Murphy said during a recent afternoon chat in the cubbyhole bar at South Coast Repertory. "The Countess" will have its West Coast premiere on the Second Stage at the Costa Mesa theater, with previews beginning Tuesday.

"You enjoy it so much you create a fantasy world," where everyday realities, such as working to pay the bills, can fade away, said Murphy, now 48. "Fortunately, the fantasy came true for me."

As it turned out, 2000 was a good year to have a well-reviewed play about John Ruskin on the boards in New York City. Ruskin was Victorian England's leading taste-maker for art and architecture, a rare critic whose writings are themselves considered great literature. He also wrote on social issues, and his salvos against the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution influenced George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy and Gandhi.

Ruskin died, insane, in 1900, and the centenary brought a couple of major retrospective exhibitions to New York featuring Ruskin's manuscripts, correspondence, sketches, and artwork by those he championed. "The Countess" benefited from the confluence just as it moved last spring from a 100-seat house to a 350-seat theater.

Now the play is nearing its 600th performance off-Broadway. It soon will open in Cincinnati, and the Old Globe in San Diego has it scheduled for next year. In all, says the now-solvent Murphy, 15 productions--including one in Finland--have been approved or are under consideration.

*

Murphy's is a triply unlikely success story.

He spent his teens and 20s shirking his dream of becoming a writer because he didn't think he was good enough to even try.

When he started writing "The Countess" nine years ago, Murphy was an unpublished novelist who had no knowledge of--or taste for--the theater.

And his subject, though a remarkable story, was, well, eminently Victorian, which in the popular mind generally translates as "probably stuffy." While Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy have had their innings as founts for stage and screen productions, John Ruskin is a name that for most educated people is nothing more than a name--vaguely remembered from a college survey course on art or literature.

Indeed, that's what it was for Murphy, who had majored in English at St. Bonaventure University in New York state.

The seventh of 11 children raised in Amityville, Long Island, by an aerospace worker and his wife, Murphy was considered the family's least likely to succeed.

"I always knew in my heart I wanted to write, but when I would mention that to someone in the family, they'd say, 'Are you kidding? Be serious.' "

Murphy went to work in insurance and advertising. He went through a bleak time about 1983, sick of his job, shaken by his mother's death and feeling depressed. He concluded that he had nothing to lose by doing what he had only dreamed of.

"I said, 'I don't care what happens, I'm going to write, and if people laugh, they can laugh," he says. "And nobody laughed."

The unpublished novel he finished in 1988 and has refined since then bears the stamp of his affection for Victorian writers. He traces the love back to his mother, Helen. While raising her 11 children, she never let a day go by without reading, and she occasionally dashed off stories that she sent--without success--to the Reader's Digest.

When he was in high school, Murphy says, he avoided George Eliot's "Middlemarch" by cribbing from Cliffs Notes. But his mother found his copy of the novel lying about, read it and encouraged him to read it too.

Eventually, Murphy grew into the kind of reader who would absorb everything by and about Eliot or Dickens. He bought Phyllis Rose's 1983 study, "Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages" for the chapter on Dickens, then read further and learned the story of John Ruskin; his young wife, Effie; and Ruskin's painter protege, John Everett Millais.

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