Playwright Robert Patrick sits in the kitchen of his tiny East Village apartment. Posters from his shows and pictures of movie stars paper the walls. The shelves bulge with art books and manuscripts. A teeny-weeny Royal manual typewriter perches atop a makeshift desk overflowing with papers. Boxes of letters and clippings compete for floor space with what looks like shredded bedding. This homy disarray suggests the abode of someone who has more important things to think about, and Patrick usually does: his career, the theater, the universe.

"In California, when they revived my play Judas for the summer in their big 800-seat outdoor arena theater, I was afraid the play was too talky, and I really worried," Patrick recalls, speaking in a soft voice still tinged with traces of his native Texas. "All around us were poplar trees rippling in the moonlight, a full California moon, stars like burning bees -- you know, just incredible beauty. And here was this little stage with not even a very elaborate set...And the audience was sitting there looking around at all this beauty, and I thought, how could this talky play compete with this? Then I suddenly remembered that whenever people have done plays outdoors competing with nature, they've been the most talky plays in the history of the theater: the Greeks, the Elizabethans, the Indians, for Christ's sake.

"And, at that moment, the actors started talking, and 800 heads looked away from the universe down to that stage to have it explained to them. and I realzied that that's the point of theater -- not to relax tired businessmen, not to titillate teenagers. You may do all that incidentally. But the point is those words and actions that make the universe clear."

Playwright Patrick has been doing his bit to "make the universe clear" for more than 15 years, and he's at a particularly busy stage in his career just now. He recently had three productions in New York at the same time: a premier of one play, a program of several 10-year-old one-acters, and a revival he directed himself. Yet another Patrick revival opened this week in Boston, and in Provincetown a musical version of an old one-act comedy is being staged. Patrick's second collection of plays is due to be published this fall. He has been called "New York City's most produced playwright," and his work has been performed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, france, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and other far-flung locales. Yet the chances are that many people have never heard of him.

Robert Patrick is not exactly unknown, nor is he unsuccessful. His Camera Obscura was, for a while, a staple of high school drama festivals, and it still provides a steady income. Boston theatergoers may remember The Haunted Host, Patricks first play and an Off Off Broadway perennial, which was produced in Cambridge in 1976. Of course, his best-known work -- the play responsible for most of his globe-trotting and for bringing him to Boston this month -- is Kennedy's Children, a set of interlocking monologues in which five disparate, desperate characters, burnt out by the '60s, sit in a Lower East Side bar and wonder what went wrong. Although a version was first performed in a New York loft in 1972, it wasn't until the play was transferred from the back room of a London pub to the West End and thence to Broadway that it became (in Patrick's words) "a hit on five continents." Still not satisfied, Patrick -- who will go anywhere one of his plays is being produced -- is here doing some rewrites for the Collective Artists Theater production at the Boston Arts Group.

Patrick's own history does not begin and end with Kennedy's Children -- and neither does his talent. After a peripatetic Southwestern childhood, he landed in New York in 1961. Before long, he wandered into a now-defunct coffeehouse cum theater called the Caffe Cino, the legendary "birthplace of Off Off Broadway" that nurtured such playwrights as Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie and John Guare. He hung out and did odd jobs for a few years, then wrote his first play. That did it. Since 1964, he is said to have turned out something like 200 plays. Many, mind you, are mere monologues, skits, sketches and scriptless scenarios; he used to be called a "pop" playwright, both because his plays had a "disposable" quality and because they were often peopled with rock stars, comic-book heroes and Hollywood fantasies. But there are also full-length scripts, verse plays, comedies and dramas of all descriptions. And the best of them display a vigorous intellect, a tender heart and a unique (if hyper) verbal grace.

Because Kennedy's Children cannily captured the voices of post-Watergate America (it takes place on Valentine's Day, 1974), the play encouraged people -- especially overseas -- to view Patrick as a "State of the Union" commentator. And because the character of the gay actor, Sparger, so knowingly and wittily recounted tales of the Caffe Cino, the play bolstered Patrick's reputation as a sort of underground Boswell, an Off Off Broadway personality. No matter how well those hats fit, and no matter how much Patrick likes to wear them, they tend to distract from the body of his work. He is, in my estimation, one of the finest -- and most underrated -- writers working in the American theater.

"I've written many plays I consider infinitely better than Kennedy's Children," the 41-year-old playwright confesses. He counts among his favorites several that are experiments in form: Camera Obscura, The Golden Circle, Mutual Benefit Life. Of the three dozen or so scripts I'm familiar with, my favorites cross-breed dazzling characters and witty banter with genuine thought and feeling. In The Haunted Host, a gay playwright exorcises the ghost of an unhappy love affair by refusing to repeat his mistakes with a young, straight house-guest. The frothy Angel, Honey, Baby, Darling Dear depicts a Park Avenue "menage-a-rie" in which a female fashion reporter, a bisexual book editor and a charming but cuckoo Broadway playwright live and love. And My Cup Ranneth Over is about would-be writer Paula, whose feminist manifestos are routinely rejected by Cosmopolitan, and her folk-rock-singer roommate, Yucca, who becomes an overnight success.

But Patrick and I agree that his play Judas is a masterwork. Set in Biblical times, it is a brilliant and ambitious contemporary parable about a young man's search for identity in a society bereft of moral, spiritual, and political leadership. "When I started traveling," says Patrick, "I realized more and more that young people in every country in the world had exactly the same problem -- this immense alienation that they had grown up with. Everything was completely phony, and they didn't know what to give themselves to, because nothing seemed truly solid or lasting or important. None of them knew that the other kids felt that way, and I thought someone should say it." (It is interesting that both Judas and Kennedy's Children reflect the disillusionment of Patrick's time, but Judas transcends topicality. No one will be able to dismiss it -- as some do Kennedy's Children -- as just a play about America in the '60s.)

Considering the range, quality and accessibility of Patrick's work -- not to mention the quantity -- why isn't he famous? Why, when the New York Times surveys the post-Albee generation of playwrights, is he overlooked? He writes better than David Mamet; he's more prolific than Sam Shepard; he's funnier than Israel Horovitz, more adventurous than Lanford Wilson and more commercial than John Guare. Perhaps he is slighted because he writes lots of one-act plays, and one-acts aren't taken seriously. Perhaps it's because he's been pegged a '60s playwright (whatever that is), and '60s playwrights are no longer taken seriously. Or is it because Patrick and much of his work are openly homoseexual, and gay theater is assumed to be all frivolous camping?

All of the above are possibilities, and Patrick is willing to entertain them spiritedly. (He will entertain anything and anyone spiritedly.) But he doesn't lose any sleep over his standing with the critics. "A lot of the critics in New York missed me," he says, "and then when they began to be aware of me, they were ashamed that they'd missed me, so now they can't admit that they missed me so they ignore me. It would make Walter Kerr feel pretty silly if he suddenly decided I was a really good playwright and he had turned down hundreds of invitations to see my plays. Besides," he shrugs, "the kids know my stuff, and that's what's important."

Of course, Patrick's plays do get produced -- maybe not by Joseph Papp or Alexander Cohen, maybe not even in New York, but they are done. Patarick operates according to the Off Off Broadway ethic on which he cut his teeth: got a stage? got two actors? let's make theater. Wait for a grant? You gotta be kidding! No one in new York wants to read Judas, let alone produce it? All right, the Pacific center for the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California, wants to do it, so we'll do it there. The Circle Rep turns down the trenchant satire T-Shirts on the grounds that it's "too homosexual? Fine -- it's not "too homosexual" for Minneapolis's Out-and-About Theater Company or for the Glines Theater, which did it in a leather bar on West 11th Street. Which is not to say that Patrick wouldn't love it if The Golden Circle were on Broadway and all his plays were in print. But he's not about to lock up his typewriter until he's profiled in the New Yorker. "I have the habit of writing," he says. "There are lots of people who are irascible cranks. I just happen to be one that writes it down."

Asked about the process, he responds; "I write desperately. Sometimes I write because I get an idea. I sit down and work out the idea; I may even occasionally take notes, not often. But usually I just sit down and start writing, and whatever the energy is, the play comes out of it. Kennedy's Children was written in a day and a half and revised forever. My Cup Ranneth Over, with two or three line changes, is what came out of the typewriter in the time it took to type it. All the research I had to do was look in the dictionary for state flowers. Other days I just get up and say, okay, so you wrote something once. Big deal. Big man. A lot of people write something once. But if you don't write something before you get up from the typewriter you're no good. A lot of the best things happen that way. Others I've written because there was a space I liked or an actor I liked or a set piece. I've never written the same kind of play twice, and I hope I never do."

He pauses for a second, as if remembering something. "It's funny how I've always meant to write plays that took place in glamorous places like Baghdad. Instead they almost all take place in New York -- which is to me as glamorous as Baghdad; that's probably why. I mean, that street out there" -- he gestures toward his home turf, East Third Street in the heart of the Bowery -- "is to be as steamy as a slum out of The Arabian Nights. The contrast in the city between savagery and civilization, poverty and wealth, impotence and incredible power, abundance and starvation, side by side! The fact that I, a playwright of world repute, live here intrigues me just as if I'd read it in a story. I don't know why I live here. I could write a play to explore why I live here. I think I know how it would come out. This poverty and terror down here, the lost desperation and the stewing discontents -- it fascinates me, this weird mixture of adolescence and ambition and insanity and indifference. You're down here and you wonder, what is culture? You see those guys out on the street, culturally bereft -- they got nothing. And you say, that's it, rock bottom. Something must come from that. And again and again it has."

Boston Phoenix, 1979

*Note: I no longer feel Robert Patrick writes better than David Mamet -- in fact, all such comparisons strike me as invidious. "Odorous," in Dogberry's word.

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