ULU GROSBARD: A Director with an Eye for the Telling Detail

When he was a teen-ager, Ulu Grosbard worked as a diamond-cutter, whose job is the first step in the process of turning a raw stone into a precious jewel. As a director, he likes to work the same way, finding a new play and being the first to give the gem inside a chance to shine. Mr. Grosbard has been in on the making of “The Wake of Jamey Foster” since it was an unfinished first draft in the typewriter of Beth Henley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart.” And when the play opens Thursday at the Eugene O’Neill, Mr. Grosbard will have spent the better part of two years almost exclusively devoted to “Jamey Foster” as director and co-producer.

Since his Off Broadway debut with “The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker” in 1962, Mr. Grosbard has directed only 10 plays. These include the original productions of Frank Gilroy’s “The Subject Was Roses,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price” and Woody Allen’s “The Floating Light Bulb” as well as the Broadway premiere of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” He has also directed four films, most recently the much-acclaimed “True Confessions.”

“I find it hard to go into a project just for the sake of working,” the director said, during a rehearsal break last week. “It’s more important to me to do something less often and do it right than to do X number of plays and just throw them together.”

His experience with “Jamey Foster” exemplifies Mr. Grosbard’s approach to new plays. While he was shooting “True Confessions” in Los Angeles during the summer of 1980, Miss Henley, who lives in Los Angeles, sent him two scripts, including “Crimes of the Heart,” which had not yet been produced in New York. Mr. Grosbard read a few pages of “Crimes” and instantly knew he liked her writing. “The dramatic potential was clear,” he remembers. “She has an unerring sense of language and character and comedy. The play dances all by itself.”

When the film was through shooting, the director had lunch with Miss Henley, who said she was writing a comedy called “The Wake” about a woman whose husband dies a few months after walking out on her, and the unresolved ambivalence she feels toward him. Mr. Grosbard liked the idea, and when she sent him the first draft, he immediately optioned it for Broadway, accepting the playwright’s stipulation that it be produced out of town first. The Hartford Stage Company seemed like an ideal tryout situation, and “The Wake of Jamey Foster” played there for five weeks last January. The same production, with a couple of cast changes, will be seen on Broadway.

The central role of Marshael, Jamey Foster’s half-hearted widow, might have attracted a “name” actress, but Mr. Grosbard felt committed to using Susan Kingsley, the Kentucky-born actress who earned sensational reviews in Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out” two years ago off Broadway and for whom Miss Henley wrote the part. Nonetheless, on the strength of the play alone, three different producers who saw it in Hartford decided to participate in the production, and a fourth eventually completed the capitalization. 

Mr. Grosbard himself, though not an investor, is also part of the production team. “My contribution as producer is to protect the play,” he said. “You cannot separate business decisions from artist decisions. If I want an actor, and the actor’s agent asks for so much money, another producer might say, ‘I can’t afford that kind of money,’ and suddenly I’m without an actor that I want. As director, it’s easier if I can work with people I’ve chosen to work with. Also, you’re involved in every aspect of the production: how much money is spent on advertising, how to advertise, how to build an audience for a play with no stars. All those are things I wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in as director. As co-producer, I have at least equal say.”

Although Mr. Grosbard is not renowned for directing comedy, Beth Henley had no qualms about entrusting him with “The Wake of Jamey Foster.” “He understood where the sense of humor was coming from immediately. He makes it real real,” she said. “I’m usually more detailed than the director, but Ulu is way ahead of me on that. When we were in Hartford, he went to a funeral home to see someone laid out, just to make sure we had the flowers right. You know he used to be a diamond-cutter? I keep thinking it’s like that. He gets this play clearer and sharper so that each little flaw stands out and then he goes in and polishes that. It’s very detailed work.”

Finding good actors, says Mr. Grosbard, is the single most important part of directing. He spent three months seeing 1,200 actors for the seven roles in “Jamey Foster.” The most difficult to cast was Pixrose Wilson, a weird little girl who becomes Marshael’s confidante.

“It’s a tricky role that could be so easily caricatured,” he said. “The girl is described as an orphan, and you find out she’s been the victim of a fire. So a lot of actresses come in to audition looking waiflike and playing Orphan Annie. But the important thing about the part is that she’s a survivor. There’s an aspect of the character that has to be there in the actor, a strength that some people have. It’s important to what the play says. It has to do with the theme of being able to bear your losses, to go on and make something of your life. Marshael is struggling to survive her ambivalent feelings, so she can go on. Her losses are different from those of Pixrose, but they have that in common. 

[In Hartford the role was played by Amanda Plummer; in New York, Holly Hunter made her Broadway debut playing Pixrose, whose idea of a delightful Christmas present is “soap on a rope” and who bewails her social clumsiness: “I’ve never been in people’s homes!”]

“That’s why I think the play is more mature and deeper than ‘Crimes of the Heart.’ Beth reaches for something that thematically has more weight, more substance. As the character of Pixrose says, ‘We have all suffered cruel things in life.’ Even in a comedy like this, Beth addresses herself to some of the harsher truths in life, and through the characters tries to show how one copes with it and survives. Yet her vision is not conventional; her characters admit to not only suffering humiliations but also inflicting them. That’s far more positive than to pretend that people are only good.”

Mr. Grosbard is something of a survivor himself. He was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1929. His given name was Israel, which he pronounced “Ulu,” and the nickname stuck. During the Nazi occupation he and his parents fled to France and then to Cuba, where he learned to cut diamonds. He eventually moved to New York City, then earned two degrees at the University of Chicago, and before enlisting in the Army spent a year at the Yale Drama School.

He says he learned most about directing not in theater but from working as an assistant on films directed by Arthur Penn (“The Miracle Worker”), Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Elia Kazan (“Splendor in the Grass”). “The most important thing I learned from film was to create an atmosphere of relaxation,” he said. “Kazan created a situation on the set where actors could enjoy their work. The key thing is that you have to be relaxed, because if you’re not, people pick up the vibes. The thing that relaxes you most is dealing with actors you like, and it comes back – it’s circular.”

Mr. Grosbard has worked with a number of actors again and again. For instance, “Beebee Fesntermaker” starred Rose Gregorio, who is Mr. Grosbard’s wife, and featured then-unknown Robert Duvall in a small part. Later he cast Mr. Duvall in “American Buffalo” along with Kenneth McMillan and John Savage. And Miss Gregorio, Mr. Duvall and Mr. McMillan all appeared in “True Confessions.” His preference for working with people he knows and his willingness to wait for a project or an actor he wants partly account for Mr. Grosbard’s short but prestigious list of credits.

“I wish I could work on four things at once,” he said. “But you know, I think the odds of everything coming together are much more favorable doing it the way I do. Success, money and fame are all nice. But when you see something happen onstage in front of you, that’s the real thing. Without that, the rest doesn’t matter.”

New York Times, October 10, 1982