Pulitzer’s wedded to ‘Own Wife’

Prod'n is first one-person show to take prize

NEW YORK — “I Am My Own Wife,” Doug Wright’s autobiographical drama detailing his investigation into the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama Monday.

Von Mahlsdorf survived the Nazis and Communists to become a national hero in her native country. The show questions whether von Mahlsdorf’s survival depended on her being an informant for those regimes.

“Wife” is an unusual choice for the prize on at least three counts: It’s the first one-person show to take the Pulitzer; unlike most previous winners, its major character is not an American; and it’s autobiographical.

“Wife” currently performs on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater, where actor Jefferson Mays essays 33 characters under the direction of Moises Kaufman.

In a phone interview Monday, Wright, also the author of “Quills,” said the prize was a win for his two collaborators as well.

For his part, the playwright finds “Wife” to be a very American play. “I always felt that Charlotte’s story was told through my own eyes,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “American audiences needed a tour guide through the complexities of her life.”

In one sense, it makes perfect sense that the Columbia School of Journalism, which bestows the awards, should honor “Wife.” In writing the drama, Wright is very much the journalist.

“The play is trying to ask what determines historical record,” he said. “Tentatively, it is the personal agenda of the historian. It is your own bias about the material and how you import it. If I was going to expose Charlotte on the page, I had to expose my own life as well. It kept me honest. I’d never written about a living person before, including myself. It made me hypervigilant about the way in which we represent real-life characters onstage.”

While landing the Pulitzer is a prestigious calling card, the impact of the award on a play’s financial success is historically uncertain.

“Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz won last year’s award. Six months later, a team of producers opened a production on Broadway and it ran four months before losing most of its original capitalization.

In 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” languished in previews, taking in only $81,000 a week. Its Pulitzer Prize, together with rave reviews, caused box office to jump to $242,981 the following week. The production eventually broke even.

Last week, “Wife” grossed $121,676, which would put it slightly under breakeven. It opened on Broadway in December. Its world premiere was at Playwrights Horizons in May 2003.

The Pulitzer Prize panel for drama included Ben Brantley of the New York Times, Linda Winer of Newsday, Karen D’Sousa of the San Jose Mercury News, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Robert Brustein, former a.d. of the American Rep Theater.

Also nominated for the drama prize were “Omnium Gatherum” by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and “The Man From Nebraska” by Tracy Letts.

As for books, Edward P. Jones won the fiction prize for “The Known World,” a novel about a black slave owner. In history, the winner was Steven Hahn for “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration.”

Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag,” a history of the brutal Soviet labor camps, won for general nonfiction, while another book about the Soviet Union, William Taubman’s “Khrushchev,” was cited for biography.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times won five Pulitzers, including one for breaking news reporting for its coverage of the massive wildfires that ravaged Southern California last fall; the New York Times won the public service award for death and injury among U.S. workers.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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