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DeLillo adds a little drama to his life

April 10, 2006|Hillel Italie | Associated Press

CHICAGO — Don DeLillo, one of the world's most celebrated novelists, sits at the end of two long folding tables that have been pushed together. He is listening, pressing his right hand against his nose and forehead or writing on a yellow legal pad, his face expressionless except for an occasional nervous smile.

The author of "Libra," "Underworld" and other books is not in a lecture hall or a bookstore, but in a large, windowed meeting room of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Seated around the tables are four actors giving a first reading of his play "Love-Lies-Bleeding," scheduled to open in late April for a monthlong run.

"I saw a dead man on the subway once," begins John Heard, who stars as Alex Macklin, a painter incapacitated by a stroke whose family is deciding whether to end his life. "I was 10 or 11, riding with my father. The man was in a corner seat, across the aisle. Only a few people in the car. A dead man sits there. This is the subway."

The reading is low-key, tentative, a dip into a very deep body of water. The 69-year-old DeLillo, wearing large-framed glasses and a gray sweater, has told the cast he considers the play to be "saturated with the idea of the preciousness of life." Director Amy Morton, who sits next to the author, has advised cast members against being "precious" about the words.

"It's not a colloquial language," she says, "but it's a language these people are used to speaking."

Heard, known for such movies as "Home Alone" and "The Pelican Brief," may be the most famous face to the public, but DeLillo is the room's acknowledged star and elder statesman. Cast members address him as Mr. DeLillo until asked by the author to call him "Don." A passage from his fiction is quoted from memory by understudy Levi Holloway.

Heard, with just a hint of fun, compares DeLillo to Shakespeare.

"It's an actor's dream," Heard says of the dialogue. "But at the same time, the language is his language, so you get scared if you start to paraphrase. I'm constantly going back to the script, 'I saw a dead man on the subway once.' It's not like, 'There was once a time I saw a guy on the subway.' "

The cast assumes DeLillo's greatness as a playwright, but there is no guarantee that audiences and reviewers will do the same. Judging from the past, chances are good that they won't. From Henry James, booed off a London stage after the opening night performance of his "Guy Domville," to Saul Bellow, whose farce "The Last Analysis" closed after a brief Broadway run, great fiction writers have a long record of making little impact in the theater.

"If you think of a lot of those writers, none of them are especially dramatic," says literary critic James Wood.

"James, Bellow, DeLillo: They're writers who seem to need quite large canvases or really need the expository prose the novel provides. Bellow needed all of his descriptive capacities because that's what was so wonderful about his writing. He needed to write some dialogue, but then move back from that and describe the physical shape and aspect of the person who's doing the talking."

Some plays by major authors were modest in scale and soon forgotten, like John Updike's "Buchanan Dying" or E.L. Doctorow's "Drinks Before Dinner." Other novelists had grander plans, like James or F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose satire "The Vegetable" was written for Broadway but instead opened -- and quickly closed -- in Atlantic City, N.J.

Over the last 20 years, DeLillo's novels have established him as a defining narrator of modern alienation, of the soul surrounded and swarmed by technology. At the same time, he has quietly -- and he likes it that way -- completed three plays, including "The Day Room," a two-act piece set at a hospital and a motel, and "Valparaiso," a satire about celebrity and the loss of privacy.

DeLillo has never endured the humiliation of James or imagined that the theater would make him rich, but his stage work has mostly reinforced his status as a novelist.

The author himself insists that plays come second to his fiction -- "I think of myself as a novelist first, always." He is aware of what has happened to other authors turned dramatists and wonders if success in one format makes it that much harder to work in another.

"I think a writer's greatness may well be defined by his lack of adaptability to other forms," DeLillo says post-rehearsal. "A writer may have a narrow range of interests, even a narrow sight line into human complexity, but if he writes a certain way, and with a certain intensity, for a certain period of time, this may well be what constitutes greatness."

DeLillo sees his plays and his novels as belonging to separate worlds. Whereas "Underworld" offers a vast, open-ended setting for post-World War II culture -- from a baseball game to a nuclear test site -- DeLillo prefers confined spaces as a playwright. His work is usually set in a single room, with a few characters.

"The smaller the better," he says.

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