Toilet pail in one hand and cup, dish and spoon in the other, Craig Wright hovers near a wooden platform that represents a tiny prison cell in his play "The Unseen."
Kneeling on the platform is Darin Singleton, who portrays Wallace, one of two inmates struggling to make sense of a hellish world in which the pain of constant torture is matched only by the anguish of being punished for unknown crimes.
A buzzer sounds, and Wright places each object in a corner of the cell.
"Maybe start like this," he says.
A second buzzer prompts him to shift everything to the left, a ritual he repeats several times before declaring himself to be satisfied -- for now. "I know this is driving you crazy," he says. "It's driving me crazy too."
Wright -- who is making his directing debut -- and Singleton have spent a half-hour arranging and rearranging Wallace's utensils during a recent rehearsal for "The Unseen," which opens Friday at the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood.
There is, Wright will explain later, a method to the madness. But for now, we might presume that he is just being as meticulous about staging a show as he is about writing one. Wright is known for carefully crafted plays -- sometimes lyrical, sometimes brutal -- in which human nature runs afoul of cosmic forces such as love, faith and fate. He often tempers the heavy stuff with very dark comedy -- a combination that also serves him well in Hollywood, where he worked on "Six Feet Under," "Lost" and "Brothers & Sisters" before creating the juicy family dynasty saga "Dirty Sexy Money."
"DSM's" two-year run on ABC is ending this summer. But that's not why Wright, who turns 44 on Monday, decided to try directing. "This is hardly a good time," he says, noting that he's serving as a consultant for Showtime's "United States of Tara," finishing a project for the BBC and preparing to premiere plays in Portland, Ore., Chicago and New York.
"I had seen a lot of productions of 'The Unseen,' " he says. "All of them have been very satisfactory, but they left me saying, 'I wish I could do this or that.' "
Last year, the Road presented a widely acclaimed version of Wright's "Lady," a politically charged tale about three buddies on a hunting trip. When the theater asked if it could mount his 2007 drama, "The Unseen," he said, "Let's do it," then added, "but I want to direct."
The Road was happy to oblige. Scott Alan Smith, who directed "Lady," and his wife, Elizabeth Sampson, are assisting Wright -- although, says Smith, "Craig's been handling things beautifully, including the technical stuff, which he thought he'd need help with since he's used to dropping in on a show and not staying for the day to day."
In working with the actors and designers, Wright is pursuing what he calls a "communitarian" approach. "More than anything I'm trying to be present and open," he says. "I listen respectfully and try to respond creatively."
He begins each rehearsal with a moment of silence designed to clear everyone's mind of the day's distractions. One recent Wednesday night, he showed up looking sharp in a crisp gray suit -- he owns eight of them -- despite having gotten up at 5 to work on a play before heading to the "Tara" lot.
Within minutes, the coat came off, the shirt sleeves were rolled up and Wright was bouncing between his front-row seat and the Road's cozy stage, where he consulted with the cast of three: Singleton (the intellectual, analytical Wallace); Matt Kirkwood (the emotional, intuitive Valdez), and Douglas Dickerman (the deeply troubled guard, Smash).
"The play's pretty simple," Wright says later. Wallace and Valdez have spent years in nearby cells. They can't see each other, yet they engage in seemingly endless conversations that often turn into contests of words and wills. Their grim routine is disrupted by strange tapping -- a sign, perhaps, that someone has moved into the cell between them. Meanwhile, says Wright, "the guard who tortures them is, to quote Wallace, 'a prisoner of his own empathy.' It drives him crazy, torturing people. So he comes up with a plan."
Having a writer direct his own play offers certain benefits: no need to guess at intention or motivation, for instance. However, Smith says, there are caveats too. "Craig has had to make the jump from thinking like a playwright to thinking like a director. It's one thing to write the characters and another to move them through space onstage."
Wright also has had to learn to step back from the material. "He knows why all the characters do what they do," Smith says. "The actors don't. Part of the process is discovery. There was a bit of impatience at the beginning, but now everybody understands."