From Pulitzers to Tonys, David Lindsay-Abaire Turns Blue Collar Roots Into Art

Though now a Brooklynite, Boston-born-and-bred playwright/screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire stays close to his working-class roots, not only with his latest Tony-nominated play, Good People, but throughout the broad swath of his career. From musicals such as High Fidelity to the Pulizter Award-winning Rabbit Hole he captures real people in tangled situations, ones that often get further unraveled.

Starring Frances McDormand and Tate Donovan, the tragi-comedy details a middle-aged woman, Margie, who remains trapped in her working-class South Boston neighborhood and old lover, a doctor, Mike, who has manage to escape. When they re-engage, various truths and dares come into play with comic but painful results.

Mounted by Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole collaborator, director Daniel Sullivan, for the playwright's longtime artistic home, Manhattan Theatre Club, it closed recently after a highly touted run that started on March 3, 2011, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The play garnered multiple award noms including Tonys for Best Play, Best Actress and Best Writer. And if the pundits are correct, tomorrow night's Tony Awards presentation should provide further accolades to Lindsay-Abaire and his talented associates.

At a recent Tony press event, the 41-year-old scribe spoke about his career and recent work including this acclaimed play and Rabbit Hole, among others.

Q: What truth was important to you to reveal here?

DL: I'm a Southie, from the neighborhood -- those are the people that I know and love, and respect and grew up with. I've been wanting to write about [them] for a long, long time. But I felt resistant to do it, I felt like I had to mature as a person, as a writer, and I felt like I needed to have a pretty clear point of view about the neighborhood and class.

I felt the economy was doing what it was doing, so if there was a time to write about the neighborhood and a time to write about they myth that anyone in America can accomplish anything if they just worked hard enough it seemed like now is the time to write about that.

Q: This was gestating for a long time?

DL: Yeah. I also had heard over and over again about British playwrights writing about class. Where are the new American plays about class? Why don't American playwrights write about class?

Q: There's no such thing as class in America.

DL: I guess that's why.

Q: Then you must have loved The Town. It's a movie about class.

DL: Yes, right. I loved The Town. It's great entertainment. But The Town is about Charlestown, which is across the river from South Boston. It's also a bank robber movie, which is fantastic. A lot of movies, in particular, have been written about working class Boston and its environs, but they're often about drug addicts, crime bosses and bank robberies. I wanted to write a different kind of story about regular people struggling.

Q: Isn't it tough to make that interesting?

DL: It can be tough [but] that's my job.

Q: You find a way to do that, to find words that aren't boring, while still dealing with people who are just people.

DL: That's a great compliment, thank you. Without resorting to a bank robbery? I hope the plots are interesting but I hope I'm also writing about ideas that are engaging and people connect with. And bank robberies are good too but I haven't written about that yet.

Q: You have your dark moments in life; what is all this about?

DL: The darkness? Does nobody have darkness in their life? I'm just writing about people. People are dark and complicated. I'm trying to tell the truth; that's all that I do.

Q: And Frances [McDormand] is fantastic in this. Did you write the role with her or anyone in mind?

DL: No, I wrote the role for all the ladies that I grew up with in the neighborhood; those were ladies that I knew. That said, I sent the draft to [director] Dan Sullivan and he said, "Who are we going to cast?"

Frances McDormand came up and neither of us could think of another actress that could do it. Honestly, she was so perfect. She's incredibly funny and soulful and charismatic, and she has this ability to play two things at once so you don't really know ever if that character is telling the truth or telling a lie, and she's impeccable at doing that.

Q: You worked with Frances and the character's evolved from there or what?

DL: Pretty much the writer's in charge in theater. Of course you're in charge with the director, but no one can change your words. People can give you notes but you don't have to take them. In Hollywood you take them and you cash your check and that's your job. It's very different.

Q: What's Dan Sullivan's secret that makes him such a great theater director?

DL: In addition to being a great director he's the best dramaturge I've ever worked with. The man is like a laser, he knows what's going on in every single scene, what's at stake, what do the characters want, and he gets out of everybody's way. He nudges them toward what needs to happen and he doesn't get all fancy and put weird visions on top of things.

Q: How different is that from a film director? What is it about him that make him different or special as a theater director versus a film director?

DL: Film is mostly a visual medium and so the director has much more control in terms of painting pictures and painting a performance. For theater the director does everything he can and then says, "Out you go," and the actors are in charge of that stage every night.

So you can shape a performance but every performance in theater is different every night. You can say a line just slightly different, and if your fellow actor's open and in the moment they will respond differently. It's a live event that happens and it's incredibly different.

Q: It's also trust.

DL: Of course it's trust.

Q: But at the end of the day you really have the last word.

DL: Well the actors really have the last word.

Q: Well at least you got to adapt your own Pulitzer Prize winning play, Rabbit Hole, for the screen.

DL: He said Pulitzer; I don't know if you heard that. I was going to wear [the medallion for this interview] but I thought it might be a little much.

I saw it as a challenge of course, but also as a great opportunity because I had lived with these characters for so long, and what the play had in its back pocket that most plays don't is a fairly involved off-stage life. And so the things like Howie's potential affair is only hinted at in the play.

The play is just five people in a house. It's just the family members and the boy comes into their lives, and that's it. And so they talk about the support group, they talk about that scene in the supermarket, again, the affair is only hinted at. We hear about the sister's bar fight; in the movie we actually get that call in the middle of the night and her sister has to go bail her out.

It was a great opportunity for me to go to all of those places that I know in my head and meet all of those people and find out who Gaby was and find out how that relationship starts to grow; that relationship became one of the backbones of the plot.

Again, it's not in the play, and so it was just exciting to me to reinvent and revisit these characters and the story and try and tell it in a completely different way without losing what I thought was important to the story.

Q: One thing about this movie was the idea that one can find comfort through faith and science -- did that idea really resonated with anybody?

DL: It certainly resonates with me. I probably share my main character's world view. I'm a bit cynical and pragmatic and I personally have difficulty finding comfort through organized religion. For a character like Becca [played by Nicole Kidman], more than religion she can't find solace in her family or in support groups or in psychology or in psychotherapy.

So in trying to figure out where is this character going to find any kind of comfort, and I did want her to find comfort because whether she says so or not it's the thing that she's seeking, science just seemed literally the most logical place to find it.

And yet, the thing that she finds in this scientific theory is a big hippy-dippy and odd, and so I liked that it sort of had this ethereal quality to it as well that you couldn't quite pin down and grasp, and it still had qualities of something you might find in religion even though it's based in science and fact.

Q: Are we going to see a big screen adaptation of Good People at some point?

DL: There is a possibility of a big screen adaptation, yes. We've talked about it. It will probably happen at some point.

Q: How do you balance your more commercial projects with these very personal ones? Is it something you consciously strive for or does it just happen that way?

DL: For me it's not about commercial versus something that's less commercial. It's just about doing things that engage me, that challenge me. I love to do things that I've never done before, so Shrek the Musical is certainly something I had never done before.

Before I wrote Rabbit Hole I had never done a straightforward drama. I had written really absurdist farces. For Good People I feel like the canvas has expanded a little bit and I'm writing more with a social mind and about current events. So who knows what I'll do next. But I keep wanting to do different things.

Q: What are some of the obstacles one should look out for in writing their own stuff?

DL: It's the hardest thing you can ever do. I don't know what the source material is. For me the biggest challenge was overcoming people's expectations, and sometimes you just can't battle that.

For Shrek [The Musical] -- and I also worked on High Fidelity -- people walked in with an opinion, and some of it was for Shrek, "Oh great, another animated movie being turned into a musical. Do we really need this?"

The other side of the coin was, "Oh it's going to be exactly like the movie. The kids are going to love it!" Neither of those expectations is good for the musical.

I want to write a musical that's like a play, where people don't know what it is when they walk in and the story is revealed to them. At the same time, more nuts and bolts, why is it a musical, what makes it sing?

Finding those events is very difficult. But oddly enough that was easier than people's perceptions and expectations.

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