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Interview

Tim Sanford and Itamar Moses

Tim: What brought you to playwriting?

Itamar: I was interested in writing from a pretty young age. I was a big sci-fi and fantasy book nerd as a kid. And so I think my first writing ambition was to write fantasy novels. Then in high school, I was at Berkeley High, which is a really crazy, diverse place to go to school, and the clique of weird, outsider, artsy kids at Berkeley High who were a little older than I was were really impressive to me. I thought they were really, really cool and they were writing plays and putting them on and I thought that was really exciting.

These were kids not in the drama program?

Yeah. There are a bunch of little theaters in Berkeley, but in particular there’s a pizza place near the UC Berkeley campus called La Val’s, and in the basement there’s a tiny black box theater called La Val’s Subterranean Theater, and these guys who were a couple of years older than me at Berkeley High would write these plays. Then eventually they started a theater company called Emerald Rain Productions, and they put on rock operas every summer in the basement of La Val’s pizza. The composer of those rock operas being a guy that I’m now collaborating with on one of my musicals. He’s writing a reality TV musical with me that I’ve been working on.

Who?

Gaby Alter.

Wow.

And then when I was a senior, I saw Angels in America at ACT in San Francisco. I think this was early ’95. And I started working on my first play right after that. It’s funny, when I spoke on a panel a few years ago at NYU to some of the undergrads, there were a bunch of different playwrights on the panel, and everyone who was around my age had an Angels in America story, how seeing Angels in America had kind of turned them into a playwright. It was really eerie how that play had been a turning point for so many of us.

Why was it a turning point for you?

I think the idea of trying to write a play had been cooking for a little while, and then when I saw that I just thought, “I have to try that. I have to try to make one of those.” Like, it was just so exciting and powerful and magical and great.

Was the play you wrote like that?

It was about me and all my friends hanging out senior year of high school, but with sort of an epic sweep like Angels in America. That’s not even a joke!

And for some reason, Roy Cohn was a character…

Yeah, no, but there were these mystical characters sort of akin to Mr. Lies in it.

What did you do with that play?

I showed it to some of my friends, but that was it. I don’t think I ever even heard it out loud.

Really? A lot of times when I ask this question it’s that pay off with actors and an audience that really hooks people. Like, “I wrote a puppet play in the third grade and all my friends saw it and I was changed forever!”

I think if I had had to hear that play out loud it might have stopped me.

Did you keep writing in college?

Yeah, but not exclusively. My focus was still broader.

Where did you go to —?

I went to Yale for undergrad.

Do you think the reputation of their theater program was a draw for you?

I guess it was, although as an undergraduate you don’t have very much access to the Drama School. And I didn’t really know what theater was like for the undergrads. As it turns out though, it has a really great, thriving undergraduate theater community and so over the course of my four years there theater became my main extra-curricular activity and eventually all I was doing outside of class.

What did you major in there?

I was a Humanities major, by design. I wanted to major in something else and then make theater.

When did you first hear your stuff out loud?

That’s a good question. I guess when I was a sophomore I directed a play I had written myself. That was probably the first time.

Did you like it?

I mean, it wasn’t a very good play. Did I like it?

The experience.

Yeah. I liked the whole experience of putting the thing together. We did it for a weekend in one of the smaller spaces and I had really good actors for college actors. I liked the intensity of watching an audience watch it but also… I heard this interesting quote from Ira Glass once where he said something to the effect that, “A lot of people get into the arts, or try writing, because they like things, they have good taste. They say ‘Okay, I read that novel,’ or ‘I saw that play and I would like to make something like that.’ And then they try and they can’t and they see the gap between what they’ve made and the kind of things they like. And at that point a lot of people give up. But the ability to see that gap is the important thing.” You’re not supposed to be able to make something as good as the things you like right away. So I think that play my sophomore year was that first moment for me of being like, “Oh, in my head this was as good as any of the plays that I love, and up there it’s not…. How do you make that happen?”

So by the time you graduated, were you clear about your direction?

Yeah. I was rejected from the one graduate school I applied to senior year. I applied to NYU’s program. But I moved to New York anyway and was an office temp for a while. First I was an intern at New Dramatists for about five months, which was fun and which exposed me to this whole world of living, working playwrights that I had been completely ignorant of before I moved to the city. In college you study playwrights who are either dead or who are really, really, really famous, which is a short list of people. So it was when I was interning at New Dramatists that I first encountered the work of Kate Robin, Doug Wright, Nilo Cruz, David Lindsay-Abaire… this whole generation ahead of me that was not yet widely recognized.

Did you have time as an intern to just like…

Sit in the office and read scripts? Now years later I can admit that yes, that is how I spent most of my time.

Really?

They encouraged us to do that. But I also spent a fair amount of time answering phones and making photocopies and doing other things.

Don’t get defensive…

I made sure that I earned the $25 a week that they were paying me!

I would hope so.

But no, it was just great to get to read all of that work and to meet all of those people and for it to become real to me.

So what was next after New Dramatists?

Then I applied to grad school again that fall, to more than one program that time. And the following winter and spring I just was an office temp. I worked at Nickelodeon Jr. Magazine and I worked at a PR firm for a week and I worked at iBeauty.com. I’d just work at all of these weird places. And actually I ended up for the longest time in the finance department at Radio City Music Hall, which was really funny.

Did you sneak into The Rockettes…?

I literally, yes, did that.

God, I know you!

Well they were down the hall! The Rockettes were rehearsing down the hall.

How could one resist?

Yeah, but it was pretty interesting. There was this period while I was waiting to hear from grad schools that I was pretty unhappy. I was in this weird space of feeling like, “Well, this could be my life for now, this could be what I could be really doing. How long is this gonna go on for?” Then in April, I heard I got into NYU and as soon as I knew what I was going to be doing in September, it was suddenly really fun to be an office temp. Like, I’m a secret agent under cover learning about this weird world that I’m not really a part of. But until I had been accepted to grad school I couldn’t hold myself at a distance from it.

How did you like NYU?

It was okay. I really liked my classmates. The program splits between screenwriters and playwrights which I think is actually good. You end up with classes that are a little bit big in some ways. But screenwriters, as a group, I would say, to generalize, are more sort of unpretentious than young aspiring playwrights. And so I think it created a more even-keeled mood in the class. Even in the way screenwriting is taught it tends to be taught in a more straightforward way, like, “Here are the tools of the craft” and with less pretentious, “Let’s cultivate your mystical voice,” which is important also, but having the balance between those two things was good. The playwriting program was in transition at the time, so by my second year I just took screenwriting and TV writing courses because it just felt like it was a better use of my time at that point. But I can’t say I’m not glad I went because, everything turned out okay. And I think it ended up being important to stay in New York for those two years.

Do I know any of the plays that you wrote at NYU?

Well Outrage was my application to graduate school.

It was your application?

Yeah. An even messier and crazier version of Outrage than the one you probably know. I did work on that play throughout grad school but I never brought any of it in to any of my classes. For some reason I protected it from grad school while taking the things I was learning and applying it to the play. The very first draft of Bach at Leipzig I wrote at NYU although that also went through many many iterations and changes over the next couple of years.

You didn’t show Outrage to anyone? Not even an advisor?

Yeah I think I gave it to Gary Garrison who was a mentor I really liked there, a very supportive guy who gave really smart notes. And I guess I put a reading of it together with a director I was friends with, so I got to hear it. I guess I suspected that if I brought it into class, I would get a lot of notes about simplifying it, and I kind of knew that it had to be this insane, giant sort of thing. And I think also, because it’s such a huge, sort of megalomaniacal piece of writing, I think at the time I was like, “This is the play that will announce me to the world!” And it sort of was like, “Well I’m gonna keep it secret until then.” And it did go on to be one of my first plays to get professionally produced, but it did not really announce me to the world as much as parts of Portland and Philadelphia.

Oh, Itamar. It announced you to Playwrights Horizons.

Well, yes. So the short answer to your question, “do you know them” is “yes.”

Let’s talk about your transition into professional theater. What was the first nice bite you had?

I was really diligent — this led almost nowhere except I think it was psychologically important — but I was really diligent back then, before grad school, during grad school, about going through the Dramatist’s Sourcebook and sending my plays to all of those contests for which they were eligible. So you’d sort of get letters back like, “You were one of ten finalists for this,” and “You were third round of that,” and sometimes I would win something and it was like, “Here’s 500 dollars for winning the Greater Texas Whatever.”

You didn’t win $500 from Greater Texas.

I mean, basically! Bach at Leipzig ironically won something called the Plays for the 21st Century Award, which I thought was weird. So I did a lot of that. And just that process of mailing and getting things back made it all feel real even though that didn’t lead to an enormous amount of things. Although the very first production of Outrage came from one of those. I won something called the Reva Shiner New Play Award, which is administered by a theater called the Bloomington Playwrights Project in Bloomington, Indiana. And they did the play in, I want to say, February 2001?

That’s where the university is, right?

Yeah in Bloomington.

I was trying to explain Breaking Away to people yesterday….

I love that movie! My girlfriend made me watch it not long ago. That is a great movie.

Steve Tesich’s greatest commercial success.

So, yes, in Bloomington, of Breaking Away fame. So then Kevin Moriarty, who now runs Dallas Theater Center, at the time was running the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, and produced the very first production of Bach at Leipzig up there one summer. And Chris Coleman of Portland Center Stage workshopped Outrage in JAW West, their summer new works festival.

Bach at Leipzig was your first thing in New York, wasn’t it?

Yeah pretty much, it was my first full production.

It was a very splashy event because there was a real buzz leading up to it and you had such wonderful actors in it.

That cast was wonderful, it was pretty great.

And then it got a mixed reception.

To say the least.

What do you feel about that experience in retrospect? You’ve survived…

I did survive. I mean, I’ve answered this question in various ways so…

How is the question usually posed?

That was a very nice way to put it.

What do they usually say? “You got dumped on by The Times, how did that feel?”

Sometimes it’s that but it’s always fine because for better or worse it became part of the narrative of my early career. There’s no way I can spin it. The truth is there was a lot of hype leading up to the opening of that play. And then some of the reviews, The Times in particular, were savage. And that is what happened, so it creates this narrative of, “Oh, this person was lifted up and then struck down but he got through okay and he’s still around!” and I guess I can accept that. It’s kind of true. But in terms of my personal experience, it was very strange because there was a way in which it was a weird gift because the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a playwright happened right away. And I got up the next morning and I got really wonderful calls and emails from all kind of people I respected so I thought, “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and so I think it made me less fearful of that outcome. And it’s never been that bad since. But I know that if it is I can survive it, so there’s that. The play has also gone on, it’s still my most produced play, it’s been produced all over the country, it’s been produced in Canada — there’s a production running right now in Chinese in Hong Kong. So that’s been satisfying. But also it was probably useful to me as a young writer. I think—I mean I don’t live in the parallel universe where that didn’t happen and the play was received with a glorious fanfare and I was brought to the mountaintop or whatever…

Did you ever long for that parallel universe?

Well I can’t imagine what it would have been like. But I don’t know. This is obviously an easier thing to say because it’s what happened, but I don’t know if it would have been the best thing for my development as an artist or as a person, irrespective of whether I believe the reviews were fair or right. But I also should say that there is a great quote from James Joyce about some of the critical response to Ulysses that I agree wih — not that Bach at Leipzig is Ulysses. He said, “Even if all of the things that these critics said about my book are true, are they the whole truth? Or are they an interesting or important part of the truth?” Because I think it’s true that Bach at Leipzig is too long, and it’s really show-offy and pleased with itself, and that I as a person have admitted to liking Tom Stoppard. But was that the most important thing to write about? Do you know what I mean?

It was also part of a larger issue. I still get emotional when I talk about this, as you can tell, because it was part of a larger thing that was happening that fall, which was that Rinne Groff had Ruby Sunrise at the Public and Noah Haidle had Mr. Marmalade at the Roundabout, and all three of our plays opened the same week, and the three of us were emailing together like, “Here it goes!” and it was the first time that playwrights of our generation had been produced at that level. And we all opened the same week, The Times panned all three of our plays, and then a week later, the critic who had panned all three of us wrote an essay on the subject of, “Why don’t Off-Broadway theaters take more risks?,” which sounds like a joke, but that’s actually what happened. And, sure, maybe he legitimately disliked all three of those plays, and it was his job to say so. But it just seemed so out of touch not to see that the theaters that did our three plays did take risks by doing us.

Do you feel like that’s changed at all? Or do you try not to even think about that?

I mean, yeah, because it’s also not black and white. The Times has said some wonderful things about writers I think are wonderful in the last few years. So I don’t know, I don’t know.

Anyway, you tarried forward and kept writing plays.

Yes.

There was a real simplicity and directness to your next couple of plays, The Four of Us and Back Back Back. Do you think that was part of your response to what happened?

I think so, but I feel it’s important to say that The Four of Us was written before Bach at Leipzig opened in New York. So it wasn’t written in response to the critical reception.

So it’s more when you’ve finished a play you say to yourself, “What do I want to do next?”

Exactly. I was learning things about what worked and what didn’t and I knew I could craft flashy-sounding sentences, and so the arch language in Bach at Leipzig is a little bit of a screen for me to hide behind. But I don’t think I trusted myself to try to write naturalistic dialogue. So The Four of Us felt like a breakthrough in a number of ways but especially in that it was the first time I got out of my own way and let the characters talk like I talk. And that was a little bit revelatory for me. And the craft is gentler too, the chronology is scrambled and it does some tricks but it’s like they’re not quite as loud or something.

Yeah I liked that as well.

No I’m very proud of that play. I think I aimed for something that really mattered to me and I think I kind of hit the target you know which is sort of satisfying. At the time it was sort of a departure, now it’s closer to what I tend to do. Maybe it’s when I found my voice.

Do you feel like your training in screenwriting gave you any kind of perspective that’s helpful to your playwriting?

Yeah very much so. My screenwriting and TV writing teachers talked about craft in a much more practical way than one would find in playwriting classes. But it’s a different version of the same craft. So it was really useful. For instance, there was a TV writing professor at NYU named Charlie Rubin, who was definitely one of the best writing teachers I ever had…

Oh I know Charlie Rubin. He wrote a musical with Bill Finn once.

Okay. He’s really funny.

America Kicks Up Its Heels.

He’s very funny, a very good writer, and just a great teacher of writing. For instance, I was writing a spec script for The Simpsons in his class, and he made a comment about the story, that maybe it needed to go in another direction in a certain scene and I said, “You’re right but those are my two best jokes that will make no sense if I turn the story this other way.” And he said, “If you can write two good jokes for that story, you can write two good jokes for the other version of the story. Always get the story right first.” And I was in my last semester of grad school at NYU. It was the first time anyone had ever said something like that that to me.

Completeness was a commission from the Sloan Foundation. When was that offered to you in relation to other plays? Were you offered it before you were produced at MTC? Or sometime in the middle?

I think the Sloan commission goes back all the way to 2005. And my productions at MTC were in 2008.

That makes sense to me because a lot of the time MTC gives those commissions to people they think are promising but don’t really have a track record with yet. Did it take you a while to find an idea? Did they ask you to write a proposal?

Yeah I wrote a little prospectus, which is not enormously far off in spirit from what the play became. And I think they wanted a draft after a year. So I did give them something, like an unproduceable mess a year later. But I said, “This is sort of the ‘wink-wink’ notreal draft. Let’s not even do a reading of this and I will revisit it later.” So I did another push a year later and finally had a draft good enough to do a reading of. And that started the ball rolling on the play having a real development process. There, and then South Coast, and then finally here.

So the Traveling Salesman Problem was clearly something of interest to you before this commission—

I came across the Traveling Salesman Problem in college in one of the science classes I had to take to fulfill my breadth requirement. And I just thought it was cool, so it sort of stuck in my head.

And were the metaphorical resonances that you bring out in the play apparent to you at that point?

Not initially, because when I was in the actual class I didn’t understand the problem well enough. But later, once I understood it better, by the time I got the Sloan commission, I had at least that kernel already — that if I wrote a play about a guy working on this problem and also trying to navigate romance, there might be a play there.

There’s a little bit of romance in of The Four Us. Not actual characters…

Well, they talk about it; they talk a lot about their offstage relationships with various unseen women. It’s one of the tools the play uses to investigate their friendship. First of all, it’s something they can talk about, but also the way each of them deals with the women that they talk about is sort of a way of talking more explicitly about how they deal with each other. So that was sort of the trick I was using.

The girls in The Four of Us seem very real, but it just occurred to me, you haven’t really written women.

Uh, not as much.

Not recently, until this play.

As it happens, my first three plays to be Off-Broadway were all men. Bach and Leipzig is seven men, The Four of Us is two men and Back Back Back is three men.

People will probably be reassured that you write women very well, actually.

Thank you.

Is that because you’ve gotten to know women a little bit…?

Maybe, or now I just realize there’s basically no difference. It’s just like writing any character who’s not exactly you, which is true of all characters. More recently I did a collection of short plays called Love Stories at the Flea, two years ago now, which in a way felt to me like when a visual artist does a series of pencil sketches before they do a mural. Love Stories in a way felt like the sketching I was doing to get ready for Completeness. It had people-getting-together moments and breaking-up moments. It was an opportunity to explore all of those issues on the stage and to be like “Okay this works. My way into this seems to actually work.” So that was the first time I’d put women on stage in New York, ever.

I think I wrote in my bulletin piece about how there’s a combination of the Bach at Leipzig voice and The Four of Us voice in Completeness in that it’s both brainy and fully researched but also frank and personal and really quite romantic. That’s one of the reasons our staff has been so enthusiastic about it. The science is so seamlessly integrated into the romance. Were you ever daunted by the scientific content it required?

Not really, um…

It’s just that I’ve read a lot of Sloan plays and this is one of the most successful ones I’ve ever read at integrating the science into the story.

Thank you. I think I have a pretty good understanding of how to dramatize an idea. I know that sounds really general. But you have to tie it to a really specific sequence of actions that seem inevitable and intrinsic. I think the challenge with something like a science play, or any subject that’s sort of handed to you, is that you might write a play that may have a really great plot and a good story, but has this other chunk of information you’re obliged to put in it that becomes like an albatross, or like an ill-fitting suit. I haven’t seen any other Sloan plays, but I knew I wanted to write a play where the scientific ideas and the emotional relationships and events are having such an intimate conversation with one another that you couldn’t have one without the other.

How did you land upon Molly being a molecular biologist? Did you know much about molecular biology before you wrote the play?

Well, I knew that I wanted Molly’s scientific focus to be something organic, in the sense of dealing with real material stuff, so chemistry, biology, or something like that, that that would be the right balance for the virtuality and abstraction of the computer science. But it was much harder, initially, to focus that research, because I couldn’t just pick some problem in biology at random. It had to be something that had an interesting metaphorical conversation with the relationship issues in the play and with Elliot’s science, with the Traveling Salesman Problem. So it was just reading widely, asking questions of people in those fields, until I landed on the idea of a protein interaction network in molecular biology, and it jumped out at me as the focus I’d been looking for. And, no, I didn’t know anything at all about it. So then it was a process of reading on my own and talking to molecular biologists until I understood it well enough to make use of it.

Completeness has changed a lot since I first actually offered you a production. It changed some before your production at South Coast Rep and it has changed even more since then. And there’s an aspect of the play which may continue to evolve a little bit in the next week from now during previews, which has to do with the meta-theatrical moments of it.

Now it’s “moment” singular, as of this afternoon.

In the version that was done at South Coast Rep, there were reenactments of past moments with Elliot’s and Molly’s exes.

Yeah, there was a sequence in the second act where our central couple relives a moment we’ve seen with a previous significant other, and then goes farther back to relive a moment that we’ve never seen, a moment that they had with a significant other from before the play even began.

The formal conceit I think is you were trying to establish the series of sequences of possibilities, and you still do that in the one meta-theatrical moment that remains as we see a computer script projected on the stage. Do you want to talk about that?

It’s a play about the relationship between a computer scientist and a molecular biologist, and so it just lent itself very naturally to me to echoing the relationship between theater as a scripted event and theater as a live event. A computer scientist writes code and those are sometimes literally called scripts, you know, “Who scripted that program?” And then a molecular biologist is dealing with these little molecules in a Petri dish that are alive, and that are therefore messy like anything alive. And in a similar way, you have a script that’s a blueprint for your theatrical event that’s in your imagination going to go off perfectly, and then every night it’s slightly different because it’s a live event, and slightly different things happen, and there’s a different audience, which always creates a different energy. Anyone who’s seen a play more than once can attest to how different it can be from night to night. And then in some cases things can even go wrong, and people work with that and you somehow finish the show, as we experienced at a recent preview. So I felt like, in the same way that Elliot and Molly have this sort of yin-yang, complimentary thing going on in their science and maybe in their personalities, that it mirrored for me the yin-yang of all the elements that come together to make a piece of theater work. And so there used to be a sort of build of meta-theatrical moments throughout the play that culminated in one big climactic one. But as I watched it at South Coast, and then pulled a bunch of those out before we even started here, and then watched it again here, and have now pulled more of them out, what I’ve learned is—and we’ll see how true this is as we continue with the previews—but what I suspect is that those moments are a little too disruptive. We get invested in the story and in the scene, and then there are these weird freeze moments, or the lights seem to fail, and it would create an effect on the audience, but it really wasn’t the effect I wanted. It seemed to push people out of the play. It seemed to damage their engagement with the scene they were watching without gaining us enough in return for the play overall. So there was that, but there was also the fact that all the setup you need for a single climactic moment that sort of gestures at the relationship between theater as script and theater as live event, all the setup you may need for that is the entire play itself up to that point. Because you have, up until then, been watching exactly that, a scripted event, being performed one time only, live. And so you may not need anything other than pulling people along with that until this one moment of a breakdown that then seems to flow into a moment of pure unscripted improvisation, that then you begin to make people suspect is itself scripted.

Is it okay that we’re talking about this?

Yeah yeah yeah sure!

Because a lot of the conversations in the lobby afterwards have been about whether this moment is scripted or not and if they read this they will have their answer.

If I were super badass like Andy Kauffman I might be like, “FUCK THEM, I DON’T WANT THEM TO KNOW!” But I don’t really feel that way. John Glore, the Associate Artistic Director at South Coast Rep, put it really well: “If most of the audience does not know that that wasn’t a mistake, if by the end of that sequence they haven’t put together that it’s scripted, what meaning is being conveyed? Because if we don’t understand that it was a part of the event then we don’t try to extract meaning from it.” And I think that’s a really good point. Even today, we had a conversation with the actors about how to pitch the fake-improv tonally. But now I’m starting to think there’s stuff I need to do to the text of what they say. I didn’t want to make it too obvious. People don’t like having things too obviously explained to them. But that moment is so disorienting, and people accept so readily, “Oh, they stopped the show and they’re apologizing to us. This is real,” that I think we may need to lead them back more directly.

Well, since you cut a lot of the buildup to it, you may need to sculpt your payoff a little bit more.

I think that’s right.

Do you know where your plays are gonna go?

Plot-wise, you mean?

Plot-wise. Did you know how this play would end?

No. The play went through so many versions before now.

Well, you have this couple who’s clearly suited to each other, okay? And I think almost all of us are really rooting for them. And they’ve got to have an obstacle, and so part of the craft of the plot is leading us to that obstacle, to the crisis of it, and then you have the last scene. So that seems pretty endemic to your storyline.

Well, yes. The romantic comedy genre, which I guess this falls into in some way, has some pretty useful pillars that you want to work within. When I first start a play off I don’t know where it’s going, but the draft where I find myself having real momentum and saying, “Okay, this time I’m gonna get to the end of it. When I’m done I might even want to hear it out loud,” that usually doesn’t happen until I know something major late in the play that I’m writing towards. It may not be the very last scene or exactly how it’s gonna end, but with Back Back Back for instance, I thought it was going to be about these two players then I thought, “Okay, there’s a third player here who fills out this triangle and doesn’t use steroids and is sort of caught between them,” and then a structure started to take shape. And then I was like, “And the climactic scene will be when they’re outside the Congressional hearings, and one of them has written this book about everything that’s happened up to now,” and I said, “Okay, I know what I’m writing towards.” And I think in this case it was actually when I hit on the structure that I felt mirrored the Traveling Salesman Problem. I mean, this is such an obvious insight, but it took me literally years to have it: that if I wanted to write a play in which the plot mirrored the Traveling Salesman Problem, I needed two people who had the option of choosing each other. They had to get rid of the choices they had previously made, and then had to be challenged by new choices once they were together. So the structure came from that.

I love how the end of the play kind of wavers between uncertainty and taking the leap. There’s a mournfulness to the moment when they shake hands, and even the last line, “How are you getting home,” isn’t on the nose. Would you talk about that?

My intent is for it to be a hopeful ending. Everything they’ve just said to each other is true, and their brains may know that this is a huge leap of faith, maybe not a good idea, probably doomed for a dozen reasons, but they can’t not try. Molly has a line early in the play — she’s talking about biology but she says, “It will be a long time before we know with our brains the things that our bodies just already know.” I was talking about that moment to the actors the other day, that their brains think they should go their separate ways and their bodies won’t let them.

So “How are you getting home” in its previous context was the jokey, kiss-off line, but now, since she’s going home, he’s actually saying, “How are we getting there?”

Yeah exactly. And in a play where the central metaphor is about a traveling salesman going from city to city…

Ah-ha. Oh right. And the word “home” remains on Elliot’s wall the whole play.

And in her big monologue in the second act about the emotional baggage she carries, where she describes trying to move on from previous relationships by going off down a road, but then your feelings about the previous relationship are the road that you’re on, you know you’re not leaving them behind, you’re taking them with you. That that idea of travel and roads, and how we’re getting from place to place, and the idea of home also has resonance throughout the play, so yeah, it’s a very packed line.

You’ve talked about the metaphor of the Traveling Salesman Problem. What about the metaphor of the protein screens?

Molly’s work is all about whether two proteins bind, and whether that bond is meaningful or not. Their handshake is a very literal, physical bond. Okay, so what did this mean? Was it just something that happened over these last few weeks because of the situation we are in, or is this for real?

They’ve been dealing with hypotheticals, but in this case it’s—what’s the term? “If the band…?”

“The band is on the gel or else it’s not.”

And that’s true for them as well. Either the band is on the gel or not for them. You can’t just spin it in your brain forever. Ultimately you’ve gotta be just two people in a room doing their time.

Yeah I mean, it’s only the beginning of their story, let’s say, but it’s why the play is over. Because the major question of the play has been resolved.