'Treme' and 'On the Verge' -- two sides of Eric Overmyer

Eric Overmyer succeeds in two very different worlds as a television script writer and as a playwright

April 11, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Eric Overmyer is a passionate playwright but a reluctant television writer.

In his deepest heart, he would like to say "No, no, no," every time someone waves a proposal for a new TV show in his face. But his loudmouth bank account keeps insisting, "Yes, yes, yes."

This is true even of such quality projects as "Treme," a show about New Orleans residents coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Overmyer created the 10-episode series with Baltimorean David Simon, and it debuts tonight on HBO.

Overmyer, 58, thinks the stage is a much more creative medium than television.

"The difference between writing for TV and for the stage," he says, "is the difference between being an artisan and an artist. Television involves collaborating with so many people. On a show like ‘Treme' or ‘The Wire' or ‘The Sopranos,' the writing is pretty good, but it's still collaborative. It's true that playwriting also involves collaboration, but not as much.

"The only thing that playwriting and television writing really have in common is that they both use actors."

Baltimoreans can judge for themselves; Overmyer's most popular stage play, "On the Verge," opens Wednesday at Rep Stage in Howard County. This production about three time-travelling Victorian ladies is being directed by Jackson Phippin, the same man who shepherded the world premiere of "Verge" at Center Stage in 1985.

"Eric and I tease each other that he's the fallen playwright and I'm the apostate journalist, and here we are being television hacks," says Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. "In truth, and though we have genuine pride in what we're doing, our job description still says ‘television'."

The pair met when both were working on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and resumed with the fourth season of "The Wire." Overmyer and his family have lived part time in New Orleans for 20 years, and the two writers bonded over the bayou city's music scene.

Simon occasionally borrowed the Overmyer home while attending Mardi Gras. After one such visit, a long, pink, silken glove left behind by his wife, the mystery writer Laura Lippman, became part of the Louisiana house's permanent décor.

"David and I have been saying for years, ‘Gee, wouldn't it be nice to do a story set in New Orleans?' " Overmyer says. "We didn't want to do another cop show, particularly, and we thought maybe we should make it about musicians. But we didn't know where to go from there.

"Then in 2005, Katrina hit. I was in Baltimore at the time, and it was really, really upsetting.

"A month or two later, David said, ‘The hurricane might be a way to frame the show.' But it was the last thing I wanted to do. So I said, ‘Not now, let me calm down first.' But David kept talking about it in his low-key, persistent way, and finally, he set up a meeting where we could pitch it to HBO."

For most of the television shows on which Overmyer has worked — "Treme" is the exception, because for the first time, he's not just a writer but the co-creator — he was scribbling to someone else's specifications. He didn't devise the plot or create the characters. He simply put words into their mouths.

"I just wrote an episode for ‘Treme' that will air late in the season," he says.

"But there's only one version of it. There have been hundreds of productions of ‘On the Verge.' Some have been good, some have been bad, and some have been mediocre, but the work itself exists and can be interpreted in different ways. Unlike playwrights, scriptwriters don't own the copyrights on their work. It's just very different."

Overmyer's colleagues describe him as the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. They say he's a terrific colleague, never cross, and lacks even the smallest hint of a diva-style ego. "A sweetheart," is how stage director Phippin puts it.

But beneath that affable exterior lurks a gently contrarian streak. In theory, Overmyer is thrilled that there can be multiple versions of his surreal comedies. In practice, he loathes it.

"I hate going to see productions of my plays," he says. "It's very painful for me. All I do is critique the production. I'll say to myself, ‘I know that line works, but the director or the actor got the timing wrong.' I also see all the things I wish I'd written better."

So he probably won't be flying to Columbia to see "On the Verge," though Pippin is an old and trusted friend. It was Pippin who pulled a 60-minute draft from Center Stage's slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts in the mid-1980s, and immediately recognized its potential.

"I was just amazed by the musicality of the language, by the way it came off the page," he says. "It was so much fun to read. And even now, it makes me happy every time I pull it out. This play has been produced steadily all over the country for the past 25 years, and 25 years from now, it will still be staged."

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