Clyman grew up in and around New York City. He started writing plays as a senior at Brown University, and kept at it while working as an assistant at Napa State Hospital in Northern California. In 1973, his first full-length play was picked by the Office for Advanced Drama Research, a Minneapolis play-development program that shepherded new scripts toward productions in regional theaters. But the timing was wrong, and Clyman let the opportunity slide because it would have meant delaying the start of his graduate studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He didn't resume writing until the mid-1980s, when he had his own practice outside Boston. There, he began the regimen he still follows, working on plays in his office during gaps in his appointment schedule.
In 1988, Clyman took his first step toward national visibility: An early version of the script that would become "The Secret Order" was chosen for a reading at that year's National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. By the early 1990s he had moved his practice to northern New Jersey, to be more plugged-in with the New York City theater scene.
The juggling act could grow nerve-wracking. Once, in the middle of workshopping a play at the Denver Center Theatre Company, he was summoned to take a call from a suicidal patient. "I thought, 'This isn't working for the play I'm trying to help, or the patient I'm trying to keep alive.' " The answer, eventually, was to focus his psychology practice on an area with fewer sudden crises and more flexible hours. So while he still does some individual therapy, Clyman mainly serves as a court-appointed expert who evaluates splintered families in divorce cases and makes recommendations to Family Court judges concerning child custody.
Only once, he says, has he grabbed a plot point from his practice -- in "The Council of 30," when a divorcing mother accuses her husband of molesting their child.
It was a worrisome sight when Clyman found the woman's real-life inspiration -- who had gotten the worst of it in his custody recommendation -- taking notes at the show. Fearing he might be in for legal trouble, he approached her at intermission.
"I said, 'How are you doing with this?' She said something to the effect of 'You listen better than you seemed to.' So in other words, the play struck her as a more sensitive understanding of people than my report had been. I thought, 'OK, that's fair enough.' "
Tony Soprano's therapist doesn't get off so easily. Clyman, whose family has had many a meal at the North Jersey eatery where the crime boss and his closest kin were gathered when the screen went black in the HBO series' last moment, frowns on the fictional Dr. Jennifer Melfi. "She's an embarrassment to the field. She's out of control, and her judgments seem to be bad. I could go on for hours; I feel maligned by association to her."
For Clyman, there's not much dramatic appeal in the extremes of mental illness and personality disorder that psychologists sometimes encounter -- and that are frequent fodder for other writers.
"I like to see people who are really good at what they do and fundamentally intact, psychologically, but challenged by events that would overmatch just about anybody," he says. "That, to me, is more interesting than seeing frail people fail as only they could. Life's pretty difficult, even for the best of us. People who are pretty smart can all be trying to do the right thing, and still end up in a mess."
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; 2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 27
Ends: Feb. 3
Price: $30 to $65
Contact: (949) 497-2787