LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Playwright David Rabe stormed New York stages in the late 1960s and early '70s with a cycle of plays about the Vietnam War. One of them, "Sticks and Bones," won a Tony award. A decade later, Rabe cemented his reputation with "Hurlyburly," about a group of lonely and dissolute men living together in Hollywood.
Three of Rabe's plays have been made into films. He's a favorite of actors and directors. But it's been more than five years since Rabe's had a play open in New York, so a question you might hear in theater dressing rooms is: Whatever happened to David Rabe?
Caitlin Shetterly went to find out.
CAITLIN SHETTERLY: Actor Harvey Keitel has asked the question. He said he's been waiting for David Rabe to call him with a new part in a new play.
Mr. HARVEY KEITEL (Actor): I know he's thinking. Wherever he is, whatever he's doing, I know he's thinking deeply and that work on something.
SHETTERLY: Fellow actor Sean Penn has another idea.
Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor): I'll be speculating here, but I want to say that he's been frustrated with the American theater. I don't think the audiences are as wiling to challenge themselves as they may be once were. I think it gets increasingly important and decreasingly appreciated.
SHETTERLY: Director Scott Elliott says he knows what happened to David Rabe.
Mr. SCOTT ELLIOTT (Theater Director): He went home, that's what I think of him - that he just packed his bags, went home.
SHETTERLY: For his part, David Rabe isn't surprised that people are asking after him.
Mr. DAVID RABE (Playwright): I guess you wonder. You'd say, well, he seems to have disappeared. But I'm clearly not on the A list anymore in theater, that's for sure, which is what people think of me. I'm hoping.
SHETTERLY: David Rabe is certainly on the A list with actors, says Harvey Keitel.
Mr. KEITEL: I think David writes for a life. He writes for people. He writes for the mythology. And it so happens he's a talented, talented man. And so his work appeals to actors in that profound way.
SHETTERLY: But critics are another matter. Scott Elliott, who directed the 2005 New York revival of "Hurlyburly," says Rabe fled New York's notoriously bruising theater reviewers.
Mr. ELLIOTT: There's very few of them that had any clout, like one, maybe two. And so when you're up against those sorts of odds as a playwright, it's devastating. If that guy happens to not like you, maybe the guy before them liked you and then the new guy doesn't like you, how do you - you can't get an audience.
SHETTERLY: Playwright David Rabe first came to the attention of audiences not long after he returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. In a white heat, he busted out the beginnings of all four of what came to be known as his Vietnam plays. The first, "The Basic Training of Pablo Hummel," caught the attention of legendary producer Joseph Pap, who became Rabe's champion. By the time Rabe finished "Hurlyburly" in the early 1980s, his was a name everyone in theater knew.
The play, about four Hollywood men who imbibe copious amounts of drugs while searching for meaning in their lives and relationships, opened in New York City with an all-star cast that included Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. It was directed by Mike Nichols.
"Hurlyburly" was savaged by the critics. The New York Times' Frank Rich called its depiction of men sentimental and banal. Other critics hurled the word misogynist at both the playwright and his characters. Nevertheless, "Hurlyburly" became a film in 1998.
In one scene, Eddie, played by Sean Penn, pulls the car over to the side of the road because Darlene, played by Robin Wright Penn, can't decide on a restaurant.
(Soundbite of "Hurlyburly" film adaptation)
Mr. PENN: (As Eddie) Why are you doing this?
Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT PENN (Actor): (As Darlene) I'm hungry. I just want to get something to eat before I faint.
SHETTERLY: The argument escalates, and Eddie finally goes off the deep end over Darlene's earlier revelation that she was once involved with two men at once.
(Soundbite of "Hurlyburly" film adaptation)
Mr. PENN: (As Eddie) I'm supposed to trust your judgment on my mental stability? I'm supposed to trust your evaluation of the nuances of my sanity? You can't even tell the difference between a French and a Chinese restaurant.
Ms. PENN: (As Darlene) I like them both.
Mr. PENN: (As Eddie) Well, they are different. One's French, the other's Chinese. They're totally (bleeped) different.
Ms. PENN: (As Darlene) Not in my inner, emotional, sensitive (unintelligible) no, they're not.
Mr. PENN: (As Eddie) Let's pay. There's a court, a waiter(ph), access a (bleeped) accents. I mean, the little phrases(ph) the waiters use - they're cutting and yelling at each other, and totally (bleeped) different lying witches(ph). Does none of this make any impression on you?
SHETTERLY: Sean Penn describes "Hurlyburly" this way:
Mr. PENN: It's a very, very intellectual, primal scream.
SHETTERLY: It was a scream that fell increasingly on deaf critical ears. After "Hurlyburly," Rabe wrote four more plays, but none of them made it to Broadway. So he turned to prose.
Mr. RABE: I just decided I want to try it. So it was time to - it was either put up or shut up because I was getting older. I don't know if I was - you know, the theater's done with me or I was done with the theater, but it was a feeling, like, when I couldn't get "The Black Monk" into New York, I thought, you know, that's the way it is now. It's a very different time in my life and in my status in the theater.
SHETTERLY: Rabe's first collection of short stories called "A Primitive Heart," was published in 2005. In "Holy Men," the writer draws from his own life and tells the story of a young man who goes back to visit his high school creative writing teacher who is also his priest. After a long night of drinking, the two men don't know how to say goodbye.
Mr. RABE: (Reading) Had we been two drunken soldiers, I knew how he would have growled and snarled, butting heads hard enough to shake us in our shoes and get us singing arm in arm. I had done it often enough. Had we been sweethearts, I knew what we would have done - we would have kissed.
But we were a priest and errant laity, and so he blessed me. With his left hand tangled in my hair, he held my head steady as with his right retreating in reflex at the elbow, almost as if he were about to punch me. He stared fixedly at me, his eyes gleaming with a desperate, grandiose exhilaration. He seemed to set himself as if he feared he might miss me. My first impulse was to pull away, but I was both startled and amazed. And then as the hand began to twitch, I knew there was nothing to fear. He was a man, that's all, and he loved me. By accepting his gesture, I felt I was blessing him.
SHETTERLY: Rabe's work is often about men trying to reach out to each other. But he's just finished a novel called "Dinosaurs on the Roof" about the relationships between women. He began the novel after a friend told him about a phone call she received from a neighbor one night, asking if she'd take care of her dogs in the morning.
Mr. RABE: And she said, sure, why? And the woman said, "Well, I'm going to be taking off in the Rapture," - you know, the end-times(ph). So she was part of a small congregation where the minister had convinced them that they were all being taken off that night. And what got me in this is - so I started thinking what does it say about our lives when - if you think you're going to be taken up by Jesus and you are worried about your animals, your dog.
SHETTERLY: Rabe's wife, actress Jill Clayburgh, reads a section of the novel in which the character of Bernice, waiting to be taken off in the Rapture, finds herself thinking about her old friend Isabel and her battle with depression after her husband left.
Ms. JILL CLAYBURGH (Actress): (Reading) She was someone Bernice thought she knew as well as the palm of her own hand. But when she reappeared from wherever she had gone, she had left part of her behind the way old clothes are stowed in boxes tied with clothesline and stuck in a basement corner. Today, from watching television and all those kinds of shows that brought things up out of the shadows, well, anybody would know what to say about Isabel that she was depressed.
SHETTERLY: The magical part of Rabe's gift, wrote one reviewer of the short stories, is that we come to understand why, from his characters' own points of view, their thoughts and feelings are entirely logical and even inevitable. Although the stories got good reviews, there are some like director Scott Elliott who still clamor for a new play.
Mr. ELLIOTT: I know that he hates the scene, but it's who he is. And sometimes it's - even fight with yourself as to who you are, because you don't want to face the music. But ultimately, you are who you are, an awesome playwright. So one day, I bet he's not going to be able to resist - that's my fantasy, that he will sit down and he will write his greatest play.
SHETTERLY: David Rabe is unconvinced. He feels that prose is where he needs to be right now.
Mr. RABE: Something in me has a deeper respect for prose than for the theater, oddly enough.
SHETTERLY: Actor Sean Penn calls this an enormous loss for all of us.
Mr. PENN: There's a place for David Rabe to go where the rest of us cannot go. He is the best, you know, provider of a canary for the coalmine, you know, to go down and find out how deep it is before the poisons hit you too hard.
SHETTERLY: Penn says that now, more than ever, we need a playwright who questions whether people can be decent to each other in the face of what he calls desperate consumerism and disheartening lies. And David Rabe may be the best man for that job. But for now, his canary will have to sing from the pages of his novel. For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.
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