Unexpected Playwrights

After success in government, journalism, finance and TV, some turn to theater

| 29 Jul 2021 | 08:40

As the theater world starts returning, there have been expected bumps. Shakespeare In The Park’s “Merry Wives” has had to delay several times. Only a guy named Springsteen has managed to open smoothly. (Guess that happens when you’re the Boss) I would argue that the New York theatrical community has suffered as much, if not more, than any medium during this time, and now faces all kinds of obstacles. These include re-opening venues that audiences feel comfortable in, not to mention that many people have gotten used to watching, for affordable prices, via Zoom. And yet, true devotees are purchasing tickets, and playwrights are eager to attract those devotees.

At this time, there are some rather unexpected playwrights. For example, Grant Woods is working on a play called “The Ghost of John McCain,” which is about McCain’s relationship with Donald Trump. Did I mention that Woods is the former two-term Attorney General of Arizona, and did I mention that it’s a musical? Lawrence Wright is known for being a superb reporter for The New Yorker. (He recently won the National Magazine Award for his piece on the pandemic.) But he has graced the Public Theatre a few times with theatrical interpretations of his journalism, and likely will again.

Rob Ulin is a highly successful TV writer, having worked on “Roseanne,” “Malcolm In the Middle” and “Ramy.” Now, he is focused on “Judgment Day,” his first play, developed in the Berkshires, which stars Jason Alexander, Patti LuPone, Loretta Devine and others, and is virtually offered (via the Barrington Stage Company) through Aug. 1. Peppur Chambers was in the financial sector, and, during the pandemic, finally decided to focus on her long-time love of theater. She has been commissioned to do a one-act for the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles, which features material by playwrights of color. She, of course, is dreaming off-Broadway.

They are an interesting bunch. Grant Woods switched from the GOP during the time of Trump. Having been John McCain’s chief of staff, he gave the most memorable speech at the senator’s memorial. He also composes music and is a scholar of all genres. “When I got out of college, it was 50-50 whether I should become a lawyer or a songwriter/playwright,” he says. “I took the easy way out.”

His play poses challenges, though there is little doubt how Woods feels about its characters. “Yes, John McCain is the hero and, well, Trump is the opposite,” he says. ”But when all is said and done, the country elected Trump and did not elect McCain.” In other words, the trick will be to tap into why the country was ready for one Republican when it had previously not been ready for the other.

“A Storyteller”

Lawrence Wright got turned on to the stage after seeing one of New York’s favorites, Anna Deveare Smith, who focuses on serious issues and voices multiple characters. He did the same with ”My Trip to Al Qaeda” and “The Human Scale” (about the crisis in Gaza). Those were basically Wright on stage alone, but he relished having theatrical pros guiding him along. “The book business is such a solitary experience,” he says, “you don’t have many opportunities to collaborate. Theater really allows you to try different things. But I would be perfectly fine with others playing me,” he half-jokes. How does Wright categorize himself? “I just think of myself as a storyteller,” he says.

Rob Ulin was a Harvard Lampoon star, then mentored by Norman Lear as he started his rise in TV. But while a fan of the stage, he had never gone there until “Judgment Day.”

“It was a learning curve for me,” he says, “since the camera can do a lot of work for you. It’s harder to cheat on a stage.” The virtual reading managed to get a top-notch cast during the pandemic and Ulin hopes the play will find a permanent home.

Jason Alexander, who hilariously plays the nastiest of men, seeking redemption after a near-death experience, says, “Judgment Day is one of those rare comedies that is as good on the page as it is on the stage. And it’s hysterical on both. We all had so much fun trying to bring it to life within the confines of the pandemic. I only hope that it sparks the desire to mount a full production as it would be even more glorious on a real stage with a real audience. Fingers crossed that it gets that opportunity.”

Peppur Chambers found her way to playwrighting simply by waiting for the right time. Who knew it would be while quarantined? “After I quit the financial world, I didn’t study playwriting, but I did study acting,” she says. “That foundation has proved to be an incredible asset for me. I understand emotion, setting, place, and character development. I also understand these things because of working in the corporate world, where there is a lot of drama!”

Like the others, she is no spring chicken, but remains determined to follow her dream. “I’m 50 now and I feel as though I am an emerging playwright,” says Chambers.

New York playwrighting wanna-bes? Start writing.

Michele Willens’ “Stage Right ... Or Not” airs weekly on Robinhoodradio.