Artist Interview: Max Posner
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of The Treasurer
Tim Sanford: In the case of The Treasurer, this artist interview will actually serve a couple of functions. The first function is that for a writer we’re producing for the first time, I like to talk a little bit about that mysterious process by which someone becomes a playwright. But in this case, since the play has elements of autobiography, it serves a double function. So we know from the play that your father lives in Denver. Is that where you grew up?
Max Posner: Yes, I was born in Denver and grew up there, until I went to college.
What accounts for your being an artist?
I was the quiet, daydreaming middle child, and I had — I have — this kind of overbearing older sister, who had a highly theatrical, highly emotional approach to life. Her reality was one that only she experienced. And I was nearest to it, I was often inside of it, which was a complicated place to be. And she loved theater. She was the five-year-old who made everyone do shows all the time.
How much older was she?
Two-and-a-half years older; we were very close.
And where was she doing these shows?
At home, at school, at the JCC. I was sort of her prop. She just ordered me around, I was almost inanimate.
So you got revenge later by becoming a playwright, the ultimate manipulator of characters as props.
Exactly. At a certain point I was promoted from a prop to a person. I played one-dimensional parts that helped show off her range. I should mention, there were no audience members for most of our shows. But they were performed with great commitment. They usually re-enacted some extreme kind of power dynamic. She experienced the world so intensely, she struggled socially, things were sometimes stormy. This created anxiety in the family. I was her confidante and also my parents’ confidante. And translator. I was the classic middle child. It was apparent to me what my parents’ problems and struggles were. There was a rule in our house that bedtimes were very early, like 7:30 PM. These were the only hours for my parents to be alone and converse. But if we were quiet, it didn’t matter whether or not we actually went to sleep. My parents would always do the dishes after dinner, and converse in great detail about each of their challenges. Most of their challenges had to do with us. My mom’s a therapist, so the conversations were interesting and complex. And I would slip out of my room at night to sit against the banister on the second floor and listen to them talk. They didn’t see me. It was strange to be a frustrating nine-year-old, and then hear these two adults talk about my being a frustrating nine-year-old. It became a way for me to check my reality against theirs.
So you’ve been a professional fly on the wall since infancy, really. What became of your sister’s interest in theater? Did she pursue it?
She did in college, but she was so competent at running things, theater became too small for her.
When would you say your role as an accomplice turned into an actual, autonomous interest in theater?
First, it was acting. I realized I really loved plays. I found my way into the Denver community theater, kind of semi-professional theater. Theaters would advertise auditions in The Denver Post, sort of like the classifieds. I would beg my parents to drive me to them. When they needed a kid for the Neil Simon play, I desperately hoped that they would choose me, and sometimes they did. So suddenly my friends were adults, adults who did plays after work, who were dealing with adult things, losing jobs and getting divorced. It was much more interesting than school. I’ve always been drawn to theater as one of the few places where people from different generations meet, and become intimate with one another as peers. Where we’re all working on the same thing, even though there are decades between us. I loved that as a kid and I love that now, working with Peter [Friedman] and Deanna [Dunagan] and David [Cromer], these great artists who have been alive longer than I have.
Just as a sidebar, did the youngest get roped into it too? Brother, sister?
Sister. She’s 10 years younger than my older sister. By the time she was making life choices, she had seen both of her siblings choose things that were unstable and maddening. I think she’s mostly made more logical choices. She’s interested in medicine, although she’s a wonderful writer.
So how did this interest in acting evolve into who you are now?
As an actor, especially if you’re 14 and not thinking about, like, Meisner, your time is spent memorizing lines. And at some point I thought, someone picked exactly which words should be memorized, and exactly what order they should be memorized in. Playing the kid in plays, I became aware of how many of the lines I kind of didn’t like. Children often get the flattest characters, the most chipper words. And I felt like I would pick different ones, if I had that power. So, as a teenager, I began writing these short, strange plays. And there was this company in Denver, Curious Theatre Company, and they formed a teen playwriting program, and I joined. They did a reading of a play I wrote. There was something about having to listen to the whole thing in a full audience of people. Something about making this private internal thing public and external. I experienced a crazy physical sensation that — I guess it still happens — that isn’t just pleasant; it’s uncomfortable and charged and more intense than anything I’d known before.
So, at some point, I’m guessing college? It became like, “Okay, I’m actually doing this.”
Yes, but even in college, it was like, we’ll see if any of this is possible when life officially starts.
Where did you go?
I went to Brown.
Oh that’s right. Did you go to Brown because of their reputation in theater?
I was very excited by the playwriting program there. Bonnie Metzgar moved to Colorado and helped run the teen writing program at Curious Theatre — do you know her?
Yes, she was at The Public and she ran About Face in Chicago.
And she taught at Brown. I had actually met Paula Vogel. She visited Curious Theatre’s adolescent playwrights when they produced her gorgeous play The Long Christmas Ride Home. And Paula was the most inspiring, articulate person I had ever seen.
Could undergraduates take graduate classes at Brown?
They do let some undergrads take them. Paula taught two classes on puppetry and I was in both. Little did I know those were the last classes she would teach at Brown. The graduate students at Brown were responsible for most of the undergraduate playwriting courses, and those graduate students were completely amazing, they had a lot of energy. They would run weekend playwriting festivals. Also, there was a student theater, Production Workshop, made up of unsupervised undergrads. So, if you wrote a play you really liked, you could properly rehearse the play and just do it at PW, which became my second home.
Was that the first time you had a play that was given more than a reading? An actual production?
I actually had a play produced during the summer after my freshman year of college, at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca. They had open submissions, looking for plays for their summer company. Actually, Bob Moss was working there, I think, as the interim artistic director. I didn’t know him, but I sent my play into the ether, he read it and liked it, and they did it. I had written the play during my freshman year of college. It was the first time I was like, “I’m going to try to write a play that takes up a whole evening.”
What was it called?
The Thing about Air Travel. In it, a version of my older sister travels on an airplane home from Kenya, where she was studying abroad, back to America for her brother’s funeral. In her mind, her brother is still alive, but he’s transformed into this kind of undead dog spirit. So they speak this intricate, goofy dog language I made up.
So by the time you graduated, you were a seasoned playwright.
(Laughs) I don’t know about that.
You were a Literary Fellow at Playwrights Horizons. When did you do our internship? After graduation?
It was between my junior and senior years of college. I was the summer intern.
How did you come to us?
I’d seen Circle Mirror Transformation in the fall my junior year and it blew my mind. I’d heard tell of people from Brown who had worked at Playwrights Horizons, Elliot Quick and Briel [Steinberg], and I really wanted to experience New York City, which was very romantic and exotic to me. So I applied.
What did you learn in your three months here? You were probably reading from the piles.
I was reading the piles, responding to the “rej adj” [rejection adjective] scripts which was fascinating: “While we found your play to be…”
I invented that form!
I still think about terms I learned from that form: like, “spins its narrative wheels”, “on the nose.” But I would also spend time going through the script library reading David Greenspan plays. And listening to Adam Greenfield’s highly perceptive thoughts on writers and writing.
Do college kids know about David Greenspan?
I’m not sure. I did. At Brown so many of our teachers had a deep knowledge of these crucial, off-center writers. Greg Moss taught Son of an Engineer; that was the first Greenspan play I read.
It was also the first Greenspan play I saw at HERE after they moved from HOME.
When I came to Playwrights, I didn’t understand what theater in New York was, but I had spent a lot of time studying these strange plays that I loved, most of which came out of the downtown playwriting world. It was exciting to be in a place that valued the individual voice, that was trying to help writers be playwrights, to help their plays reach audiences. Being here made me feel like: It’s very hard and unlikely to be a playwright, but it’s not impossible.
So after you graduated from Brown you went to Juilliard, right?
Not right away. First I moved to New York and had jobs and kept writing. A couple years later, I applied to Juilliard because I realized I wanted to stay in New York — I didn’t want to disrupt the fundamental structure of the life I was building. I found New York to be thrilling and also very overwhelming. It took time to make it into a more normal home, and I didn’t want to reverse that by leaving for grad school.
And what was happening with your plays, before that?
Not long after I moved to New York, Page 73 gave me their fellowship. That changed everything.
How did that happen? Did you apply?
Yes, I applied. They have an open submission policy, and they really read everything. I was a total stranger to them. I was accepted into their writers group. And then, a few months into being in the group, they gave me the P73 fellowship.
Can you describe your evolution as a writer?
Rhythm was always the first thing I paid attention to. If you were to read my first plays it might be clear that I had acted in Neil Simon plays and also recently read Endgame. In high school, I got really excited about Allen Ginsberg, his unruly poems. I wanted to make things with that kind of abandon, or emotional energy. I was and am drawn to writing that is personally costly. Things that are frightening, or mischievously near to the bone. I wanted to do things that could only happen in theater, so my plays veered towards a kind of high theatricality. But the people were always near to me, and their psychology always mattered. Early on, my plays were crowded with theatrical and linguistic devices. I was trying everything. Made up languages, direct address, character-swapping, time-hopping. I was very inspired by Paula’s focus on “defamiliarization,” making the ordinary strange, which was encouraged at Brown. My plays were sad, and maybe a little manic. And then I tried to simplify and avoid my own gimmickry. And then, for awhile, language took over. A certain kind of speech would just swallow a whole scene, and the form would be dictated by the dialogue. I wasn’t as focused on structure. But, more recently, I’ve started to think about the shapes of plays. Also, after I moved to New York, I started hearing my characters voiced by really great actors. Like Debra Monk did a reading of The Thing about Air Travel. And there was a workshop of the last play I had written in college, The Famished, featuring Steve Boyer, Will Harper, Brooke Bloom, and Crystal Finn, directed by Ken Schmoll, who I’ve collaborated with a lot. Great New York actors brought a new level of detail to my writing, and from there I became focused on emotional detail, on zooming in.
What was the play we did a reading of?
That was Snore. I wrote that in the Page 73 group. The play is made of a cacophony of young voices, trying (and failing) to settle into their post-college years meaningfully and ethically. They all talk over each other, they tend towards an accidental kind of cruelty. It was the hardest thing I had written technically, by far. And then I wrote a play called Gun Logistics, which I wrote when a really ambitious director I’d met, Knud Adams—
Who was a fellow for us—
Yes! And Knud told me, “I’ve got this Drama League fellowship, and I’m supposed to find this 30-minute play by a dead writer, but I’d rather you just write something.” Knud was very smart, very enterprising, and bold. And his idea was to get two amazing actors to agree to do the play before I’d written it, so that I could write the play for them, specifically. And he had been in New York a few years longer, and had assisted a few great directors, so he knew actors. And he said, “I’ve gotten Paul Thureen and Birgit Huppuch to agree to act in whatever 30-minute play you write.” And, suddenly, I had to write a play for Paul and Birgit. By that point, I had realized that these were very special actors who had great, idiosyncratic senses of rhythm. I wrote this play that was half an hour long, about these occasional lovers who were driving cars towards each other. And I realized I could just keep going. Now that I think about it, it was a bit of a precursor to this play. It focused on these long, intricate phone conversations that happened between these cars, and when they ended, the characters would narrate what they were doing to the audience, without physically doing any of it. There was no set, but they would say, “I’m stopping in a parking lot. I’m speeding up.” It was a strange play that came very much from working with those actors.
What was Juilliard like for you?
I didn’t think I would get into Juilliard. I felt that my plays were too untidy and disobedient. But I summited my play Snore and I think Chris Durang connected to something in it. When I started, I was the youngest person there, and scared that I was not writing correctly, that everyone else knew how to write a play, or agreed about what a play should be. I grew to feel a real admiration for Chris, as someone who has built his own theatrical sensibility, and stayed true to it while allowing his work to surprise and evolve.
You were the youngest person there? Did others have MFAs already?
Many had MFAs. There were classmates who felt like established playwrights, at least to me at the time. You know, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was in the class right above me. And I had a day job for the first stretch and was writing this very languagey, long play set in a basement in 2040. I didn’t want to stop writing the way I was writing. I didn’t want to lose track of the kind of downtown freedom that had inspired me. I wanted to continue making my own rules. But I also wanted to know more about how plays actually work. It took me a little while to feel settled.
Did you feel they wanted you to write in a certain way?
I think it was actually that I had gone to Brown, and my teachers were Greg, and Paula, and Lisa D’Amour. And then, Erik Ehn. And the values that they instilled in me were about being rigorous while knowing that there are no rules, that a play can be anything. Everything was an experiment. And Beckett was still kind of my God. At Juilliard, I had this sense that there were more rules. Maybe it’s that people were more aware of what kinds of plays were currently being produced at large Off-Broadway theaters. One amazing thing about Juilliard is there’s a real honesty about the business of being a playwright, and the economics, which were more alien to me.
Also, you were sort of equivalent to a Brown MFA recipient without actually having one. I don’t know how many people who go through the Brown MFA program would also go to Juilliard.
Exactly. You know what it was? It was little schizophrenic, going from Erik Ehn to Marsha Norman. They’re both incredibly inspiring leaders. They’re both like preachers. They have a profound sense of what they believe, and why, and how a play should be approached. And while their ideas, in some ways, could align, they rarely lead to the same thing. There wasn’t a lot of overlap. And so I was disoriented at first. I wanted to go to Juilliard because I felt like, I had been writing plays for awhile, and I’d taken a lot of great classes, and I still don’t know how to do it.
And so do you feel, now that you’ve finished, that you—
No! And that was what I learned there, that you never learn exactly how to do it. Or at least I don’t. Because it’s different for every play.
You’re one of those guys who does it by not knowing how to do it.
I think I am. Of course there are things I’ve learned, things that I know, but I’m coming to accept how important uncertainty is to my writing process. I think the focus should maybe be about honing one’s own intuition.
Did you write Judy while you were at Juilliard?
I had started it before I went there. It was a very dense, long messy thing. Judy found its shape at Juilliard. Ken Schmoll ended up directing it there. But, the shape that it found was an odd shape for a play from Juilliard to take. There was no overt climax, people were spatially separated, there was a kind of Chekhovian bagginess to time, a focus on behavior over story. Judy was a thought experiment about what my siblings and I will be like when we’re middle-aged people in the 2040s, about how that might that look, at its worst. (Laughs) There are six characters. Three middle-aged siblings, two of their adopted children, and then the guy who repairs the system who ends up having an affair with the childless oldest sister, Kris.
Oldest sister, getting the juiciest role again.
Yes. Although my older sister is more like Tara, who Birgit played. She’s forming a new religion, a church. There’s something about her spiritual fervor that feels closer to my older sister, whereas Kris, the oldest, is kind of silent. Her big love affair happens without either of her siblings knowing about it.
You’ve talked extensively about the personal root of The Treasurer, in the relationship of your father to your grandmother. So, the basic circumstances that your grandmother left your grandfather and your father’s family when he was 13 are true? And that his older brothers had left the house?
How often did your father see your grandmother after that?
I don’t know how often he saw her. She had a new partner and they did these amazingly active things, politically, things in Albany that were not about being a mother. He was sent to boarding school and their family was sort of discontinued. But they definitely saw each other and interacted.
Did your dad move to Denver before he and your mom started a family?
Did you see your grandmother much?
Maybe once or twice a year? We would go visit in the summer for a week—
With your dad?
Yeah, with my dad. We wouldn’t stay for very long. We’d stay for a week, maybe and all of our relatives are on the East Coast. So these trips were actually mass visits. There were a lot of people to see, on both sides of the family. It was overwhelming.
So your mom and dad, who encouraged candor and openness about feelings, would be open about finding her difficult?
As we got older, yes, but it was not hard to decipher before then. And, things would happen. She would, say, take us to a lake. We would go off on our own with our grandma, she would take us to a lake and we would come back with new pet turtles. Turtles we captured from the lake that my grandmother encouraged us to take home as five or six-year-olds. And then, my dad would be like, “What are we going to do with these turtles?!” And then we’d have to stop at a police station on the way to the airport to turn over the turtles, before we flew home. (Laughs)
So were you like, “Wah, I want my turtle,” or..?
I loved my turtle, but I eventually recognized that, rationally, we couldn’t take the turtles. They weren’t ours. And it also became clear that they were possibly baby snapping turtles. (Laughs) So, there were small things like that, things that illustrate how fun my grandma was, because no one else in the whole world was like, “You know what? That’s your turtle.” No one ever said that. It was a kid’s dream, to be told that it could be your turtle.
When did you realize, “Oh, I get it, my dad’s mother left him when he was 13”? You might’ve objectively known, without emotionally knowing what that would mean?
I think they were always honest about what happened. My immediate family was always very close, and my parents always seemed very together. In some way, this was a reaction to my dad’s childhood. He wanted to do it differently. As I got older, my mom would sometimes talk about how sad my dad was when they began dating. And my dad was so even-tempered and consistent, so pragmatic and reliable, that it was always kind of fascinating to imagine this thornier emotional side to him, something that wasn’t on display when we were kids.
So when’d you decide to make it a play?
Well, actually, my grandmother was a character in a short play I’d written in high school. I knew she was an interesting person to try to recreate. She’s a social being, and she really does have her own wonderful language.
It kind of follows in the footsteps of your relationship to your sister. The colorful, loud person gets the focus. Our gaze goes to them, you know?
I think about that sometimes, how there are people who take up a lot of real estate in your life and head, who have these magnetic forces. So much of our identities are formed in relation to these people.
And the way you described your grandfather, it sounds like he was a bit more traditional, as a person... Was he broken, as described in the play?
My memories of him are incomplete, I was pretty young when he died. But the story is that he did struggle to recover. He wouldn’t speak to her. And my dad did see his father gutted. I was really aware of my dad’s relationships to his brothers, who are these great guys, they’re all good friends, and they sound very similar on the phone. They have the same voice, almost. And they were very fair in dealing with the problem of how to handle the money with my grandmother, fair with everything. Money is an opportunity for fairness, I think. It was clear, for most of my life, that she lacked a connection to reality, or at least to my dad’s reality, which is made from very practical, logical considerations. Later, when I was in college taking a history class, it dawned on me, wow, to be a woman in the ’50s, like my grandmother, to get married and drop out of college and have three sons basically right away, how very intense and confining. To discover, after all of that, who she actually wanted to be. What a conundrum. And so, her “abandonment” made sense to me, as a kind of painful choice she had to make. It felt justified, she deserved to be more than a wife and mother, she deserved to follow her own passion, to live a big life. And she did that in a neighborhood and in a time when women weren’t divorcing their husbands. So there’s a real bravery to her, too.
And notwithstanding what you said about the vividness of your grandmother as a character, the play starts with a monologue from your dad.
Well, it’s funny — I’d written a lot of plays that felt loosely inspired by women in my family, who are more dynamic as characters, more verbal and emotionally transparent. But I had some abstract notion that I would someday try to grapple with a family trauma like the one my father experienced. And Judy was such an imaginative project, coming up with imaginary things in a future that had not yet existed. After that, I wanted to write something about the past, something that required no invention, that I had to be really accountable to, that had a real grounding in reality. I am always interested in projecting – into the past, into the future, into a nearby person. And I was compelled by the kind of emotional geometry of trying to think of my father as a son. I would hear things about my grandma and him and think, “That would be a scene in a play I would write.”
Give me an example.
I heard that my dad asked her to return a pair of purple corduroy pants she had purchased at Talbots for 50 dollars, and for some reason, that exchange became a little mythic. There is such a clear, almost operatic, emotional logic to it. The whole thing made me feel such love and sadness towards both of them.
Did your dad and his brothers call him “the treasurer” in real life?
Yep, they did. He had been the treasurer for a while, before I began the play. My uncles, by the way, have always done the heavy lifting. Spending time with my grandmother, moving her, visiting her, holidays. As treasurer, my dad could work remotely, he could pitch in without spending time in her presence. By the time everyone knew I was writing a play, my dad and my uncles would sometimes say, “Oh, you gotta hear about this exchange that just happened!”, “We should send this to Max.” There were moments when the play was almost being fed to me, which felt ethically very complicated and also dramatically rich.
So chronologically, you start with the death of Ron Armstrong, which probably had—
That happened when I was in college, yeah.
And then you sort of conflate the time from there to when she begins to lose her grip.
That was another thing that actually started to come into focus after I had started writing.
She’s someone who is so good at being among people, at being social; her personality is so vibrant and fun, and she has great phrases that she uses all the time, so the moment when she started losing her grasp on things was really hard to pin down. And it probably started well before anyone knew about it. Because she kept behaving in the same way even after the dementia began to take hold. And she didn’t want to acknowledge it for a long time.
Talk a little bit about the relationship of all these things your father contended with in his role as the treasurer and the emotional underpinnings of what’s going on between the characters.
I think it’s the complexity of feeling like you were owed a thing you were never given and then suddenly you are being required to pay a lot of actual money towards the person that didn’t give you the thing that you were owed. And the thing that you were owed wasn’t actually money. It was a relationship. It was—
Love and caring.
Yeah, it was many of these fundamental things.
In one of the talkbacks, you spoke about the monetizing of emotions in the play. I think that describes the relationship the son has with his mother. But in her dealings with the outside world, the converse is true. She emotionalizes monetary transactions.
That’s what I really hope people get from the play, too. When she buys purple pants, he sees 50 dollars. But for her, the pants weren’t the point; this live interaction that was actually very meaningful happened to cost 50 dollars. But she is looking for contact, not pants. Her family is not nearby, her husband is dead.
Let’s talk about hell. You’ve said that you wrote the opening monologue first. And like his first or second sentence is, “I will be in hell.”
Yeah! It’s the first thing I wrote. I was thinking, “Where is this play going?” And then I realized that the play is going to exactly the place where he says it’s going, which is to hell. Which, of course, is not a place but an idea. And then, of course, the play is hell the whole time. Hell just evolves. To me, The Son is contending with his own conscience. He’s a very moral person – that’s how he lives. And it’s painful for him to act in ways that feel immoral. The entire play tried to express this very hellish process of any parent dying. Which is made particularly hellish, I think, by not feeling the way you’re “supposed” to feel. And ideally there’d be something you could do to quickly correct that. But, in this case, there isn’t, or, he doesn’t. He’s waiting out the clock on his mom. It’s a very guilty feeling. Saying that he’s going to hell provides a way to organize his guilt. Saying that he’s going to hell is also declaring that he is not going to correct this relationship during his life. They’re not going to reconcile, to see things through the other’s eyes, to salvage a feeling of love. I do want to be clear that this play is focused on an internal morality of The Son’s own making. He is not objectively condemned to hell by God. He shouldn’t go to hell, no one should. But he’s thinking, and he feels wrong in an absolute way. Hell is an idea, and it’s useful to him, and the play takes us all the way to the end of that thought.
Of course, we don’t know this as the play unfolds. All we see are these phone calls about money, including one where he blows up on her. But then she has a stroke and that breaks. We think that might be the end for her then we see him on an airplane. Could you talk about that scene?
Until the airplane, we have only seen The Son on the telephone. Or talking to us. We’ve never seen him interact with a person in the world. It’s a reminder that he is a capable, kind human being. His problem is confined to this one person and relationship. It felt important to see him talk to a person before we see him not talk to his mother.
And his response to her is positive: “You’re a good kid for going and supporting.” In a way, it hints that maybe he might try to be a good kid with his own mom. So the next scene is in the restaurant. It’s so elaborately set up, we might be forgiven to think, “Here comes the redemption scene.” But of course it turns out to be more of “the impossibility of redemption” scene.
There’s some sense, I think, however conscious, that this is probably going to be the last of it for them. That this is it. And he’s going there to be helpful, to move her into a nursing home, to deal with logistics. But he hasn’t really been in Albany at all. And then there’s this meal where he can’t actually complete that effort, how could he? They cannot form a whole beginning at the end of all this.
What’s his obstacle?
Ah...where to begin. We should ask Peter Friedman. (Laughs) I think his obstacle is that the fundamental premise of their relationship is not shared. And the pressure of this being the last chance, you would think might make it easier to break through, but that would require them to trace their way through all of the fabrications and avoidances that they’ve each participated in for 50 years. He’s also unclear, I think, on what she’s cognizant of. There’s the sadness of realizing that her memory is gone, that the person he knows her to be is not exactly the person she is anymore. I think he’s made his decision about what he can and can’t do. I think he knows pretty early on that he’ll need to live with this feeling.
Except, he did invite her to the meal. That signifies some kind of gesture, doesn’t it?
Yes, sure, but if you’re going on an airplane to see someone, you’re going to end up in a meal. The meal feels unavoidable. And the problem is they don’t even have a juicy drama to yell out at the restaurant. There isn’t a foundation. That’s what kills him. It’s not like their relationship is outwardly brutal. The channel just isn’t open between them, and he’s confused about whose fault that is. He feels he has failed her, and at the same time is angry that he will never get the love he feels he is owed. He’s sealed his life off from that pain, it has been kept separate and small for decades. But, her decline unseals all of that, and he’s not used to the size of his own emotions.
For a long time, they don’t say anything, then it seems she’s the one who tries to draw him out. But it’s like she can’t avoid saying things that would set him off. Like she says, “Isn’t it wonderful that we both met our soulmates.” His stomach must turn somersaults at that one.
And she’s totally right, which is why that one really hits. He cannot think of her marriage to Ron Armstrong in the same terms as his own marriage to Nora. But to Ida, what’s the difference? They are both examples of partners in crime.
So he asks for the check. Dinner ends, he pays, he steps away, starts narrating again... Then, he gets a phone call, and she’s dead. And, almost right away... He starts to go to hell. But verbally, he’s equivocal — what’s the line?
He gets the phone call that she’s dead, and then he gets stuck for a second, and says, “Let’s say... Let’s say... Let’s say...” And then, the next thing he does is he returns to the bicycle.
So... That’s your way of underlining that he’s imagining this?
Exactly. He’s trying to get to the end of his thought, of this play, of this process that has been really hellish, that has not been cathartic for him. And I like to think of the biking to the death as the next thing he thinks when he finds out his mother is dead. The play is his attempt and failure to prepare himself for this moment – when she actually dies. When their relationship’s failures have ended and solidified. This is when messy things catch up. His very rational, methodical thoughts continue, rationally, but also defy logic, in that he’s in hell, which is illogical. He’s overtaken by emotion, and that’s the end of the play.
So then he goes to this hell, or your unique version of the emotional equivalent. Did that just come as a vision?
It came from thinking about what he would actually be doing after news of his mother dying. He’d ride his bike home from work, and then go to the airport to attend his mother’s funeral in Albany, a place he dreads visiting. This is, in some ways, the exact same hell, emotionally. “I’m walking to a taxi to an elevator to a walkway to an air train,” all of that, to me, is the endless process of facing this filial failure. I’m very interested in narration. We know it’s a play, in some way he knows it’s a play. He’s searching for an ending, for a way of describing this gigantic, slippery thing. And within the frame of this event we’re making, when he says he gets hit by a car and dies, he then goes on to narrate the next thing, we’re not watching a person get hit by a car and die. We’re watching a person continue to talk and stand and think. We’re watching death make a person more articulate. So there’s a dissonance between the literalness of death and hell, and our knowing that it’s false, that he is right there speaking to us, searching for the next sentence. I enjoy that tension.
What do you think the presence of the Guy character in the elevator does to The Son?
It brings this idea to the forefront, that there are many people in the world like him, who he would love and forgive. They should all be forgiven, absolutely. They should forgive themselves. But, he would not like to be forgiven. Not yet, at least, not in these first moments after learning of her death. Guy in the elevator also cements the idea that, even though this is a thought experiment, The Son no longer has control over it, he isn’t in charge of all the words anymore. It’s happening to him now, his wife’s hairdresser’s husband just shows up.
When we were in rehearsal talking about some cuts you made to the elevator scene, Deanna said, “I’ve actually just realized what this scene is about now!” Then break was over. Did she ever tell you what that was?
She did, yeah. She said that it was because Guy in the elevator — it’s not that he did all of these things, it’s that he didn’t tell his husband, that he did them.
What do you make of that interpretation?
I think it’s a very interesting and valid interpretation, and I think it connects to this idea that the reason people are in this elevator isn’t because of some horrible crime they committed, it’s because of the thing they feel most guilty about, which is not an action that they took; usually it’s an action that they didn’t take.
I think one of reasons you have another character is that, through the conversation, that moment of Aristotelian recognition can happen. He can see there’s something in common he has with Guy, and there’s something about him that’s different.
That’s true. They’re both in this elevator, and they both feel they should be there. And the thing that’s different is their entire lives, why they would ever arrive at that conclusion. Guy was raised in a Christian hell-believing household. But they’ve both arrived at a moment of unmanageable guilt. The actions that put them there are suddenly arbitrary.
That’s a big “ah-ha,” though, for The Son—
“It was my idea.” Yeah. There’s a creeping awareness that this is happening because he made it so. The morality of it; it’s his morality. He isn’t there because someone else thought he should be, some God or religion, he’s there because he thought he should be. It’s an idea he used.
I want to go back to the son — I mean The Son’s son: you. The play begins with The Son telling us: “My son wants to write a play about me. Okay! I’m not sure I’m a very good character!” But, at the end, we go back to the son. And not necessarily the son writing the play—
—typing something. And the segue out of hell, is, he says, “I was in the part of hell reserved for sons who don’t love their mothers but miss their wives very much,” which sort of allows him to step back out of hell and look again at the comfort and the beauty of what he’s described in his family.
Yes. Although I think this comfort and beauty is something he’s seeing from a bird’s eye view, as he moves away from life. It’s not something he’s present for, it’s something he misses, but something that exists very solidly because of him, something that can now live without him—
But I think by returning us to his son writing the play, we return to that love between them.
I really hope so. With The Treasurer, I was trying to understand what it’s like to lose a parent. I’m trying to understand this through my father’s relationship to his mom, which is radioactive in very specific ways. But, in doing this, I accidentally end up imagining losing my dad, who I hope never dies.
And I think we feel that empathy. It actually informs the whole play. We do dig deep into The Son’s guilt about his mother, but it also feels like the play releases it as well. What do you think springs up in the moment he says he loves him so much?
He’s talking about his son logging into a bank account, and being asked, “In what city was your father born?” And we have this scene, earlier in the play, where he’s logging into a bank account to look at what his mother has spent. And he feels such, I think, sorrow, about his childhood, his family, about what, sort of, happened, and what didn’t happen. And then, suddenly, hypothetically, his son is also logging into a bank account, because that’s what we will all be doing until we die. But the feeling prompted in his son, by the exact same question, “In what city was your father born?”, is completely different than the feeling that he had. In some ways, it’s the inverse of that feeling. And so I do think that that’s the kind of difficult, microscopic progress of this story, one of the small graces that happens for him.