HAVE you ever noticed how politeness and prurience tend to warp intimate conversations? Have you noticed how in families everybody talks to the sister with the drinking problem about
everything but her drinking problem and to the gay brother about everything but being gay, and yet
those subjects keep leaking to the surface anyway?
Maybe you haven't, but the playwright Tom Donaghy has. Since 1993, Mr. Donaghy (pronounced
with a hard "g") has made a career out of writing plays whose dialogue, as Ben Brantley said in a
review in The New York Times of his "Minutes From the Blue Route," is "a collision course of
evasions, non sequiturs and spastic monologues that only occasionally connect in ways an outsider
would perceive as rational conversation."
Crazy as it first sounds, this circuitous locution is also, Mr. Brantley pointed out, "bitingly familiar to any
grown child who has returned to his parent's house to discover that home is a foreign country."
Mr. Donaghy's newest work, "Boys and Girls," focuses on two couples making their way through a
minefield of power struggles, gender differences and trust issues in the course of raising a child. Bev
and Shelly are a lesbian couple who have come to believe that their 5-year-old son needs an adult male
around. They would like to invite their friend Reed to move in and help bring up the child, but they
don't approve of the handsome, unreliable Jason, with whom Reed has been conducting an extremely
ambivalent relationship. In the four roles are Carrie Preston, Nadia Dajani, Robert Sella and Malcolm
Gets. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez, the Playwrights Horizons production is in previews at the Duke on
42nd Street, where it opens on May 28.
Over decaf lattes at a cafe in the West Village, the playwright was asked where his penchant for
aggressively indirect dialogue came from. His immediate response was pure Donaghy: "I'm basically
inarticulate, so I don't know how to answer that, A. And B, that's where it comes from."
The oldest of four sons born to an Irish-Catholic father and an Italian-Catholic mother in suburban
Philadelphia, he described himself as a quiet and observant child. His early plays were sufficiently
autobiographical that after seeing his first one-act, "The Dadshuttle," about an awkward parent-child
encounter, his father thought he was being mocked and refused to speak to him for some time. And
like the never-seen gay son in "Northeast Local," which Mr. Gutierrez directed at Lincoln Center in
1995, Mr. Donaghy was encouraged by his mother to pursue his artistic ambitions.
"I was involved in theater my whole entire life," said the slender, curly-haired Mr. Donaghy, who is 38.
"To celebrate my first Holy Communion in second grade, my mother took me to see `The Nutcracker'
at Pennsylvania Ballet. But I was in plays even before that." At 14, he started training as a dancer. "But
I had bad knees, and I was undisciplined," he said. "I just wanted to smoke and drink martinis." He
switched to acting and enrolled in the undergraduate drama department at New York University.
As a student, his taste in theater was formed by highly stylized productions like Peter Brook's
"Carmen," Anne Bogart's staging of "South Pacific" (set in a rehabilitation ward for disturbed war
veterans), the dance-theater of Pina Bausch and especially the 1984 Mabou Mines staging of Franz
Xaver Kroetz's play "Through the Leaves," directed by JoAnne Akalaitis.
"The whole thing was a shock and a surprise — I didn't know that you could write so intimately about
people," Mr. Donaghy said, referring to Mr. Kroetz's spare drama about a female butcher and her
lover. "Nothing happens and everything happens. I would hope to write a play like that one day. There
are still too many words in my plays. I want to write a play where people come out and don't say
anything for 10 minutes. That play really changed my life."
Another life-changing experience was being included in a group of 20 students that David Mamet
invited to study with him in Vermont and that eventually formed the nucleus of what is now the Atlantic
Theater Company. Mr. Mamet became such an important mentor that Mr. Donaghy rarely mentions
his name, but refers to him as "he."
"He was formulating an acting technique at the time," Mr. Donaghy remembered. "We read
Stanislavsky and the Stoics. We analyzed texts. A lot of it gave me, unconsciously, insight into how a
play is constructed, especially how he would construct a play. But I didn't know that at the time."
Several of the Atlantic actors started writing because the company could not afford to pay royalties for
plays, which is how Mr. Donaghy began his career as a dramatist. The company has served as his
home base, producing two one-acts ("The Dadshuttle" and "Down the Shore") and two full-length
plays ("Minutes From the Blue Route" and "The Beginning of August"). These plays, along with
"Northeast Local," revolve around family dynamics, suburban life and listless young people with
dead-end jobs. A roofer's son, Mr. Donaghy is especially attuned to the lives of working people.
Like many playwrights, he has supplemented his income by writing and doctoring screenplays that
never got filmed. But he has also written and directed one feature film, "The Story of a Bad Boy," an
account of a gay high school student's coming-out that toured the festival circuit in 1999, and he is
preparing another, a drama about a teenage gunman, called "The Lion's Share," to be shot in digital
video later this year.
In retrospect, Mr. Donaghy can see that the informal graduate seminar with Mr. Mamet was a valuable
apprenticeship. "The first and best thing I learned from him was what to leave out," he said. "His work
appealed to my sense of modesty. He's suspicious of words, too. His plays are so lean. The way I like
to work, fewer words lets the audience in. Sometimes I go to the theater and drown in all the words.
It's as if the playwright or the collaborators want to make sure you know exactly what they want you to
know, and I feel there's no room for me in the audience. You could do the most damage with fewer
words — that's probably the best thing I learned from him."
WHILE Mr. Donaghy's plays offer oblique social commentary — the title of "Boys and Girls" speaks
volumes about the emotional maturity of its 30-something subjects — they primarily function as
nuanced character studies, according to Mr. Gutierrez. "Tom's plays succeed or fail based on the
acting, not on advancing political positions," he said. "There are wonderful actors who can't do this
kind of language. It looks like it's easy and natural and slice-of-life, and it's not. It's shaped and
selected and filtered. What I love about his plays is that he finds the detail in everyday life and heightens
and focuses it so that suddenly that ordinary thing is transformed into art."
Mr. Donaghy claims to have very little imagination: "I tend to reflect back what I see in front of me.
And I see gay people having babies everywhere. A lot of people in their 30's, who've spent their lives
having fun, are turning their attention to raising a child, and there's so much emphasis on extremely
careful planning that it can end up being neurotic. Which isn't to say they don't care deeply about what
Mr. Donaghy, who lives in the West Village and shares a country house in Ulster County with four
friends, does not dream of being a parent himself: "I can't imagine the responsibility. It's enormous and
complicated. It's an investment in hope. And I don't know that it's in me. Gay people are just crawling
our way out of 20 years of fear and fighting with HIV. I'm still attached to the fear and fighting, in my
soul. Some people obviously carry the hope of having another generation that's better. So even if I
don't share that point of view, I marvel at it."
New York Times,
May 12, 2002