Playwright will raise curtain on two plays
NEW YORK — Welcome back, Weller.
He hasn’t had a major New York production since 1990, but this month, playwright Michael Weller will raise the curtain on two Off Broadway bows in quick succession. On Sept. 15, New York Theater Workshop world-preems “Beast,” a vicious comedy about mutilated Iraq vets visiting the president; just 13 days later, MCC Theater opens the dysfunctional marriage drama “Fifty Words.”
Weller might be a new name to the youngest generation of theatergoers, but he has a long history of stage, screen and TV work. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a regular with companies like the Public Theater and Second Stage, and three of his plays — including Vietnam War drama “Moonchildren” — had Broadway runs. When Hollywood came calling, the scribe penned the screenplay for Milos Forman’s”Hair” and later nabbed an Oscar nom for “Ragtime.”
But by the ’90s, Weller had largely fallen off the radar.
“The stars didn’t align in New York,” he says. “But I kept working.”
Partly, Weller wrote for television, notably scripting segs for the drama “Once and Again.” He also spent time toiling on screenplays that just weren’t getting produced.
“For a period, I didn’t have someone pushing very hard for me in that area,” he says. That’s changed now, he explains, mentioning a film project he’s working on with Bob Balaban.
On the legit side, Weller’s adultery drama “What the Night Is For” played the West End in 2002, before landing at Southern California’s Laguna Playhouse in 2004. He’s also revising his book for the musical adaptation of “Doctor Zhivago,” which originally preemed at La Jolla Playhouse in 2006.
And in case anyone wondered why, after the success of “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys,” no one has thought to go to the jukebox for a musical featuring the hits of another famous band, don’t fret. Weller’s on it, collaborating with director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) to turn Fleetwood Mac’s hits into a musical.
In Gotham, the scribe helped launch the playwright mentor project at Cherry Lane Theater, and he’s on the faculty at the New School for Drama. “That’s kept me feeling part of the New York scene,” he says. “But it just happens that now there are these plays being produced.”
The double dose was an accident of timing. “Fifty Words” has hovered for years as a potential Broadway vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the thesp’s packed sked opened the door for MCC. (The production now stars Norbert Leo Butz and the long-attached Elizabeth Marvel.)
And though Weller only recently completed “Beast,” the fact it deals with the George W. Bush presidencymeans it needed to bow this fall to feel relevant. After reading the play earlier this year, New York Theater Workshop a.d. Jim Nicola promptly made room in September.
Nicola calls the scribe’s recent low profile a positive. “It’s like the return of a favored son,” he offers, adding that NYTW will include biographical notes outlining the writer’s history of social awareness in its program.
Weller’s past successes and his long absence from the legit forefront could work both for and against him this season. There’s a risk that “Beast” might be dubbed another message play like “Moonchildren,” while “Fifty Words” could seem as a throwback to “Spoils of War,” a divorce drama that played both on Broadway and TV.
“Some people could think, ‘Is this current writing, or is it dated writing from an older writer who hasn’t grown?’ ” acknowledges MCC co-artistic director Robert LuPone. However, he dismisses the concern, saying he was struck by the insight and immediacy of “Fifty Words.”
Weller feels his recent anonymity may actually keep the new plays from being overly compared with the old ones. “It’s one of the lucky things about flying under the radar,” he says. “You tend not to arouse expectations.”