Not exactly methodical, his words burst in air

Writer: Warren Leight has too much to say in any one play.

Theater

January 31, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Warren Leight is a "binge writer."

He works best when his writing comes in frantic bursts. Consider his newest play, No Foreigners Beyond This Point. The first readings of this work-in-progress will take place tonight and tomorrow at Center Stage, which commissioned the script.

The boyishly rumpled playwright stepped off the train in Baltimore at noon Tuesday - just six hours after finishing the second act.

"There are things that I want to write that I don't get around to until I have a deadline," says the 45-year-old New Yorker, who won the 1999 Tony Award for his first Broadway play, Side Man. "The writers I admire and loathe are the ones who write four hours a day every day."

No Foreigners, which is based on the playwright's experiences teaching English in China two decades ago, is a marked departure from Leight's first two full-length plays, which are about jazz musicians - the largely autobiographical Side Man (which will receive its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre in May) and Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine.

"I have been wanting to write my China play for almost as long as I'd been wanting to write my family play," he explained during a break late last week.

But though the play had been percolating for years, he got down to business only about a fortnight ago. "The hardest thing in the world is to get the rough draft out, the first blank 90 pages," he says.

"I had all kinds of stuff and it all got tossed. It's not a healthy process. I can have three months to write a screenplay, spend two-and-a-half months thinking I'm working on it, then have two weeks and don't use 85 percent of what I spent two-and-a-half months doodling on." (His screen credits include the 1993 Matthew Broderick movie, The Night We Never Met, which he also directed, and the 1996 movie, Dear God, starring Greg Kinnear.)

In the case of No Foreigners, the "stuff" he accumulated relates to eight months in 1980-1981 when he and another American - to be played at Center Stage by 2001 Tony Award-winner Robert Sean Leonard and Carrie Preston - traveled to Guangzhou to teach at a foreign trade institute, "a tiny little school in the middle of rice paddies," as he puts it.

"They just wanted the students to learn to do deals in English with foreign businessmen, but the struggle was how do you bring in foreigners to teach English without having them bring themselves and their lives in with them?" he says.

"It felt like being on another planet. Imagine if there were two teachers from Mars at a school outside of Baltimore. Everyone would know them, and if you went to a store and came out, there would be 400 people laughing." He pauses, then adds: "I should put some of this in the script."

Leight received the Center Stage commission a year ago, and began wading through documents from his months in China. "It was the one time in my life that I kept a very detailed diary because there was nothing else to do," he says. "I wrote dozens and dozens of letters home, and when I got home everyone had saved them and was passing them around. I had these boxes of stuff." He brought some of this to Baltimore to share with the actors.

"The challenge of this script is too much material, and then how do you turn it into a play?" he says. "I had the same problem with Side Man. That's why when people say, `All you did is write your life,' I say, `You try and get it down to an hour and 40 [minutes].' "

Although Side Man won the Tony and went on to become one of the most produced new plays in regional theaters, it came perilously close to falling by the wayside. After an encouraging 10-day run in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1996, "every theater in New York [City] turned it down," says Leight, whose varied writing experience ranges from horror movies and cabaret acts to the "His" column in Mademoiselle.

But he never gave up on Side Man, and two years after Poughkeepsie, the play opened at off-Broadway's CSC Theater. The night before the critics came, Leight and director Michael Mayer were painting the floor and foraging through Dumpsters for additional props. A last-minute cancellation in the Roundabout Theatre Company's season led to a subsequent berth on Broadway.

Side Man focuses on a dysfunctional family in which the son, called Clifford in the play, often finds himself taking care of his jazz trumpeter father and alcoholic mother. The play elicited identical responses from Leight's parents, who are separated. "They each thought it was a very accurate depiction of the other," he says. (His father has seen the play on stage, and his mother has read it.)

As different as No Foreigners may seem from Side Man, Leight sees a thematic link: "A lot of my work, for better or worse, is about connection or the loss thereof, and trying to understand and be understood."

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