By Sherry Amatenstein
From the opening moments of a telephone interview, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has the ability to make a stranger – a reporter! – feel like a trusted friend to whom he can spill his secrets, vulnerabilities and hard-gained life philosophies.
Perhaps it’s that mix of guilelessness and culpable pain that makes his plays – Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Best Play Tony Nominee The Motherf**ker with the Hat and the spanking new Between Riverside and Crazy – so enthralling.
Guirgis’ characters curse (a lot), oftentimes show crazy-poor judgment, take ethical shortcuts, commit crimes, yet we care deeply about their fates. We see the heart underneath.
Q. WHY DOES MORAL AMBUGUITY TURN YOU ON AS A PLAYWRIGHT?
A. The most realistic portrayal of life is gray. Look at Palestine and Israel – you can’t have a civilized discussion with anyone about it on Facebook. It’s black and white. But writing stories about a black and white perspective is boring. It’s the gray that’s interesting.
Pops, the main character in Riverside, tells a big lie but why did he do it? Maybe I haven’t told that lie but what lies do I tell in my own life? The characters in the play hopefully have enough humor and intelligence to make us feel compassion.
I’m not allowed to bore the audience to death.
Some people can create characters literally based on themselves. Woody Allen has been writing about characters that are a variation on himself for 40 years. I love his work but if all my characters were about a half Irish/half Egyptian working class guy turned middle class writer like me– I wouldn’t be excited.
Q. YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF LOSS IN THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS. FOR STARTERS, BOTH YOUR PARENTS PASSED. HOW HAS THAT IMPACTED YOU?
A. Losing your parents is a game-changer. Nobody really understands what it’s like until it happens to you. Everything is different – in some sense for the better. Some ways I’m more hopeful, in other ways more cynical.
I identified my mother’s body – I looked at it and looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, no, that’s not her.’ We were so close I was sure I’d have extra-terrestrial experiences. Three months after she died I had one dream. That’s it. So maybe there’s nothing.
Q. ANOTHER, MORE RECENT GAME-CHANGING LOSS WAS PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, WHO YOU OFTEN REFERRED TO AS YOUR ‘BROTHER’. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN HANDLING HIS DEATH?
A. Parents’ deaths are supposed to happen. Phil’s death shows things really are random. That can be a comforting thought but also terrifying.
His dying gives me a motivation to live – seeing the stupidity of things I do. Why do any of us ever do anything that is antithetical to staying alive? It makes no sense.
Q. HOFFMAN DIRECTED THE FIRST FIVE OF YOUR PLAYS. WHAT WAS IT LIKE OPENING RIVERSIDE WITHOUT HIM AROUND?
A. I feel now like it’s fortunate he didn’t direct my last play Motherf**ker with the Hat. I wanted him to but he wanted me to have another director. I had to accept it.
So there was a little bit of grace for me that I’d had the experience of working with another director. But I’ll never have another working relationship like the one I had with Phil.
There’s a part of me that’s angry Phil’s not here. I’m sad but I’m also grateful we had almost 20 years together. He inspired some scenes in my latest play.
Q. ARE YOU HAPPIER IN YOUR REAL LIFE THAN YOUR CHARACTERS ARE?
A. I put what I’m angry and afraid about in my plays. I write about what keeps me up at night and when I fall asleep my dreams are stressful– I’m being chased, or I committed some crime. I have some recurring dreams that are getting a little less recurring. So I must be making progress.
But I have a good waking life. A lot of good people in it. I’m lucky to have them.
Q. RIVERSIDE JUST OPENED TO RAVE REVIEWS. IN YOUR HEAD, ARE YOU STILL MAKING REVISIONS?
A. The rewrite process is the whole game. I did revisions until they said I had to stop. Fifteen minutes before the curtain went up the other night I was googling “moral relativism.” If the play has another life after the Atlantic Theater run (just extended to August 23rd) I’ll be chipping away at what’s not supposed to be there.
Recent Theater Review “Between Riverside and Crazy” by Brian Scott Lipton: