DAVID RABE: Home from Hollywood

                                                                                                      photo by Christine Rodin

Here’s a story that pinpoints the status of playwrights in America. The interviewer arrives at the Upper West Side apartment building and announces to the doorman that he has an appointment with Mr. Rabe. The doorman’s face goes blank. Rabe, the interviewer repeats, David Rabe. The doorman thinks a moment, then lights up hopefully. “Hoos-bahn Jeel Clay-burk, ak-tore?”

Well, husband of Jill Clayburgh, yes, but David Rabe ought to be better known as one of America’s four or five most important dramatists. As the elevator sails to the 16th floor, I toy with the idea of delivering an impromptu seminar on Rabe and the three plays – The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers, all of them about the Vietnam war – on which his reputation is based, but the moment passes.

The afternoon mail lies scattered on the doorstep when the cleaning woman greets me, followed by a huge Doberman, followed by Rabe, himself surprisingly huge – tall and stocky, with dull blond hair lightening to colorlessness. Still boyish at 40, he has the soft- spokenness and casual movement of an overgrown jock, Michael Moriarity in the body of Nick Nolte. You can imagine a baseball cap stuck in the back pocket of his jeans.

Rabe seems spacey this afternoon. He wanders off to answer the phone (“No, she’s in California at the moment”) while I survey the spacious, picture-windowed living room and peek at the pictures of Jill mounted in the hallway next to posters from productions designed by her talented brother Jim. At last we settle down in the nursery (part-time lodgings for his 7-year-old son from a previous marriage, though, as Loretta Lynn might sing, “one’s on the way”) to talk about Rabe’s new play Goose and Tom-Tom, which the playwright is directing himself at the Public Theater.

“I’m used to being around at rehearsals,” he says. “Mike Nichols had me there every day during Streamers. The hard part is having the responsibility for being some sort of authority figure. I was always the writer, and the actors would come to me when they were mad at the director. But I’ve learned through this process that actors basically develop an antagonistic relationship with the director. I was taking it very personally until I realized this is just what happens; I’ve got to learn just to take it and not be mad back. So dealing with the emotional life of people is what’s taxing, and I feel I’m more lacking in that than in knowing how to proceed. Nichols was truly the best director I’ve worked with, and I learned a lot from him. Basically, you proceed through trial and error, and gradually something works. But he’s extremely skilled in charming people, which I’m not. There’s that tense point when there’s about a week of rehearsals to go when people start to panic. I used to go get drunk; now I have to be there.”

Rabe didn’t originally intend to direct the play; almost two years ago he embarked on a workshop production of Goose and Tom-Tom with another director. They went through two lengthy rehearsal periods at the Cubiculo, and though the director “didn’t work out,” according to Rabe, “I learned a lot. I saw that I was coming up with good ideas and making sense to the actors. Because we had eight weeks of rehearsal, it was like a production in my mind that I’ve almost seen, and I wanted to complete it. I talked to some other people about directing it, yet I knew the play is elusive. I had seen a lot of it work, and just having another mind involved would mean beginning that struggle all over again. And the production I’d been thinking about and almost got would become something else. So I decided to do it myself.”

Goose and Tom-Tom is somewhat of a departure for Rabe. For one thing, it’s not about war (or War); its journey is more internal and spiritual. And though it incorporates the ultra-naturalistic dialogue of In the Boom Boom Room (Rabe’s resounding flop of 1974) and the alternative level of reality that figures in Sticks and Bones, the new play is stranger, more difficult and, in the broadest sense, more poetic than its predecessors. “I had been thinking about writing something that would go off in a fairy-tale direction. I remember sitting down and not knowing what I was doing. I went for a walk and came home and this just started coming out, so I followed it.”

The eponymous duo seem at first to be petty gangsters under the spell of a lusty moll named Lorraine, but the play soon spirals into another universe with its own laws of logic. Rabe intimates that it has to do with the collapse of the rational mind and the emergence of the unconscious. “There’s all this concern about witches, and people turning into animals and having another identity, and then gradually this quest about diamonds comes into it. I feel very out on a limb, because if it doesn’t work, it’s ridiculous.”

Goose and Tom-Tom is Rabe’s first new production since Streamers was done at Lincoln Center in 1976, although a Broadway revival of The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel starring Al Pacino played a limited run the following year. During the hiatus, Rabe took a stab at writing-for-hire in Hollywood. “By the time I’d done Boom boom Room,” he recalls, “I couldn’t sit down to write without feeling Walter Kerr on one shoulder and Clive Barnes on the other. I hated having that feeling, trying to anticipate what they would like. It really bothered me that they could take away my livelihood. If you make a living writing plays, and they write reviews that close you down, they take it away. I couldn’t live with that. That’s why I wanted to make some money. My plays didn’t really make me much money. Even when Sticks and Bones was running on Broadway and won the Tony Award for best play, I was making maybe $100 a week the whole time. I made more from the TV production of it. I wasn’t broke, but I was suddenly looking at going back to teaching unless I could parlay my reputation into something that made money – like films, I thought.”

Besides screen versions of his own Pavlo Hummel and In the Boom Boom Room, Rabe wrote adaptations of a war novel called First Blood, a true-life murder story It Gave Everybody Something to Do, and Robert Daley’s Serpico-like Prince of the City. It was not surprising that he was offered a lot of material involving war and violence; his plays feature some of the most effective scenes of violence, portrayals of male fear and psychological manifestations of war’s horrors in modern literature. What was more surprising was that none of these movies got made. After Rabe had done two drafts of Prince for Brian DePalma, Orion Pictures fired DePalma and got Sidney Lumet to direct and Jay Presson Allen to write the movie. That was the last straw for Rabe.

“I thought I was going to go out there and make the money I needed and write things that really reflected my way of looking at things. It took me a long time to realize things didn’t work that way. They all talk to you like they want to make your picture. Guys would talk to me for hours, weeks, about making a movie of Streamers or Pavlo, and I’d take all these meetings, and they’d sound like they mean it, but they don’t.” He laughs, disbelief mixing with a crazy admiration. “I don’t know what they’re doing. I kept thinking, ‘If I do this, if I go to this meeting, if I meet this guy, if I do this treatment, if I write this draft, if I do this screenplay, if I get this actor interested, then what I’m interested in doing will happen.”

Rabe doesn’t consider those years wasted, nor has he completely sworn off Hollywood. He’s written an original screenplay called Just Married, which may, in fact, get made. The title of that work and Goose and Tom-Tom’s somewhat more metaphysical examination of the meaning of love suggest that his happy relationship with Clayburgh has taken the place of his Army experiences in the mid-‘60s as Rabe’s central creative obsession. And, as he acknowledges, “All the movies that didn’t get done made me more money than all my plays put together. And they gave me the freedom to write this play, which takes huge changes. If it fails, it fails, but at least I was able to write it the way I want it.”

In the end, something failed – Rabe’s directorial charm, or perhaps just his nerve. In any case, the production of Goose and Tom-Tom came to a halt before the first preview at the Public Theater.

Soho News, October 15, 1980