To Russia, With Love

Playwright Craig Lucas talks Chekhov and happy endings.

When you talk to Craig Lucas, you have no trouble understanding why he's been ubiquitous on the American arts scene. In person, his energy feels like the kinetic result of an emphatic mind at once furious and compassionate. His voice can wrap suddenly around an angry invective as quickly as it can unfurl into a hurtling burst of laughter. There is no love lost between Lucas and the Bush administration, or Lucas and New York Times critic Ben Brantley (whom he blames for ruining his Broadway career); Lucas and his partner, scenic designer John McDermott, meanwhile, have been trying to have kids with a female friend.

And then there is Lucas the playwright, screenwriter, and now film director, who, over the last couple of years, has poured out a litany of essential works all articulating the random, sometimes horrifying life events that should not ever, he seems to say, throw us so off center that we lose genuine human concern for each other. There was his recent translation of Strindberg's Miss Julie in New York. There was a 2003 New York Film Critics Circle Award for his screenplay to Alan Rudolph's The Secret Lives of Dentists, an Obie in 2004 for his play Small Tragedy, and a Tony nomination this year for his book to the musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's novella The Light in the Piazza. That Seattle-born musical's successful Broadway debut was just the latest in a fruitful partnership with Intiman's artistic director, Bartlett Sher: He located the door-slamming poetry of Lucas' dark Nazi farce, Singing Forest, last year (an American Theatre Critics Association award winner for Best American Play) and in 2001 brought a noir sheen to the visceral Hollywood "love" triangle The Dying Gaul (the lauded film version of which Lucas himself adapted and directed this year). Now Sher is staging a new Lucas translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters (opens Friday, June 17; Intiman Theatre, 206-269-1900). Somehow Lucas also found a moment to tell the Weekly what's behind it all.

Seattle Weekly:You've had a productive year or so. Is your mind ever at rest?

Craig Lucas: I took on a lot of work about five years ago because I didn't have any income at all. I'd never really thought about making money because I'd been lucky enough for a long time to be married to a doctor. And when he died, he left me his house, and I had the money that I made on Prelude to a Kiss, so I thought I was going to be rich forever and so I just spent it. I don't know how young people do it when they suddenly hit it big, how they manage to handle the money properly.

What has it meant for you to be connected to a regional theater?

It's the best thing that's happened to me, finding Bart. Because I was just casting about looking for colleagues to work with who understood my work and [could] bring it to fruition. And I have some in New York, but New York is not a particularly friendly place for new work; New York isn't a friendly place for anything except cockroaches and rats. So I came out here to see The Dying Gaul in 2001, and I was just blown away. It was the first time that I found a director who had the kind of sensitivity to my work that [longtime collaborator] Norman René had. I worked with wonderful directors in New York, but none of them had this deep understanding, this European sense of theater, that Bart has.

What's been the most rewarding result so far?

Well, I think there's a difference between rewarding and joyful. The most joyous experience I've had in the last five years was directing The Dying Gaul. That was a revelation to me. It's been more rewarding, in a sense, to be making theater in an ongoing way with Bart.

I think we really hit a stride with both Singing Forest and The Light in the Piazza. It took us a while to learn to work with one another. I kept waiting for him to ask me what I thought about things, and it turned out he was never going to ask me. [laughs] So I tiptoed around for a while, which made him very anxious and annoyed. And now I figured out all I have to do is yell, "Bart, I hate that!" And then he fixes it. So, we have now a very playful and healthy dialogue, and I trust him implicitly.

I saw your film of The Dying Gaul at SIFF, and it's going to upset even more people than the play did because it feels almost accusatory, telling us that we're selling each other and ourselves out.

You know, Jim Schamus from Focus Films was so angry at me at Sundance after the movie. He went around going, "I think that movie is obscene! I think it's fucking obscene! It offended me, do you understand?!" And I realized that he was personally attacked. There's this funny thing that happens in the critical world, which I'm sure you witness all the time, which is that a certain kind of critic is upset and they instantly assume that there is something wrong with what they've just seen—that it's broken, that good art only makes you feel better about yourself. That's interesting. That kind of criticism, of course, is autobiography. [Washington Post and former New York Times critic] Peter Marks was so upset by The Dying Gaul that he called it a minor tantrum of a play.

There is a lot of anger in that play, and for better or worse, I think gay men are going to respond to it as almost a battle cry—like, "If you keep fucking with us, this is what's going to happen. . . . "

. . . You're going to become a killer. Well, we already have. The problem is, we've sentimentalized what happens to people who have been abused. Television and movies tell us that people are somehow ennobled by suffering, but of course people are made smaller and meaner, as witness Osama bin Laden's worldwide following. But, I also think what's better about the movie is that I had time to digest the material. And frankly, Bart's production here taught me something about the play, which was that it was a tragedy and a thriller from the beginning and that it couldn't try to—well, in New York I think we tried to win the audience over with the humor in the first act. And if you don't warn the audience that Medea is going to kill her children, they are going to be very, very angry, when their funny, funny comedy about Hollywood turns into a horror show.

Why Three Sisters now, which has had a Lanford Wilson adaptation, a Michael Frayn adaptation—

Oh, there's so many, but you know, they're all bad. Except for [American poet] Randall Jarrell's, which I think has a certain integrity. Look, [Chekhov scholar] Richard Gilman says Three Sisters may not be the greatest play in the world, but it would be very hard to make a case that it is not.

So was it just a challenge that you wanted to take on?

It wasn't anything. It was sitting around with Bart, and he said, "So we're going to do Three Sisters." And I said, "Oh, whose translation are you going to do?" And he said, "I haven't decided yet." And I said, "Well, do you want me to do one?" And he said, "Sure." It was just stupid. I don't know why I thought it was gonna be like, you know, a weekend in the country.

Do you know Russian?

No, but what I did was get a literal translation and look at how many words it is. Because so much of Russian when it's translated turns into longer phrasing, but Chekhov is very terse, very simple. The good thing about American play dialogue is that it doesn't have to be correct at all because Americans don't know how to speak. [laughs] So I just made it my goal to try to render it in a speakable, American, nonanachronistic, non–overly colloquial diction. . . . I feel good about our adaptation in that it's actable. It doesn't sound fakey-fakey anglicized. We didn't stick any phrase in that couldn't have been spoken in 1904, [but] I got rid of things that we wouldn't know—I felt it was important that an American audience understand the references. So I found ways of trying to let the audience in on all the references, so they didn't feel excluded and didn't feel they had to do any homework. Because I don't think Chekhov's audience had to do any homework. They just went to the fucking theater, right?

Do you think it fits into the throughline of your other work somehow?

This play has confirmed me in my belief that great art does not tell you what to think or feel at all. For instance, everybody does the wrong thing in certain great plays—everybody. But you still come away—unless you're, you know, George Bush—knowing right from wrong. I think if I look at the decisions I made writing Longtime Companion, and even to a certain degree Prelude to a Kiss, I was still a little worried about letting the audience know that it's all OK and that I was going to take care of them. That's a little more respectful of middle-class boundaries, and I have, in fact, decided as an artist that I need to relinquish those. I would've had Griever commit suicide at the end of Blue Window. I would've had Rachel not find her son at the end of Reckless. And the reason all those plays have happy endings is because Norman [René] believed that you had to give the audience something to send them out into the night. Ever since Norman died, I've been writing these horrible things where I take an ax and I stick it in people's brains, and they hate me. [laughs] And it's nice with Bart, because Bart has done Titus, and he knows that you can actually feel bigger and more alive, and you don't necessarily have to be shown a ray of sunshine. I love the end of Three Sisters, because it's there but for the grace of God go I.

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