NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Will Craig Lucas’ “Singing Forest,” now having its East Coast preem at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater after a summer stint in Seattle, be his “Angels in America”?
Or will it be his “A Bright Room Called Day”?
Either way, this ambitious new work comes at an extraordinarily prolific time for the 53-year-old Lucas, on the heels of a hit Broadway revival, a movie adaptation of an earlier play that marks his film-directing debut and an upcoming Broadway musical for which he penned the book.
Though it’s unfair to compare “Forest” to the much-lauded epic endeavor of Lucas’ playwriting pal Tony Kushner — or his earlier, less-famous work — Lucas’ new play is lengthy (3¼ hours), sizable (nine actors play nearly 20 roles), adventurous in form and style (quick shifts in time and place; mixing farce with tragedy) and sweeping in themes (historic, political, psychological).
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The recent Connecticut opening received positive reviews and did warm biz in the chilly January slot. Talk of a possible Gotham production has centered on New York nonprofits Roundabout Theater Co., Manhattan Theater Club and the Public Theater.
The latter has a personal connection with the work: Its new head, Oskar Eustis, also is the play’s dramaturg, just as he was for the long development of Kushner’s “Angels.”
But other theaters claim a connection with the scribe over the years. Commercial producers are having a look-see during the play’s run through Feb. 6, though best bets are on a Gotham nonprofit run for the 2005-06 season.
When the show hits New York, it would further enhance an impressive return to the spotlight for Lucas, best known for Broadway’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” many Obie-winning Off Broadway works and the screenplays to “Prelude,” “Longtime Companion” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists.”
Lucas got off to a running start this season with the Roundabout’s revival of “Reckless,” starring Mary-Louise Parker. Next up is pic “The Dying Gaul,” based on his Off Broadway play, starring Campbell Scott, Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson; it preemed at the Sundance Film Festival. Lucas also has written the book to the Adam Guettel musical “The Light in the Piazza,” opening in April at the Vivian Beaumont.
Lucas is working on a screenplay based on a novel by Tom Spanbauer, “The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon.” He’s also doing an adaptation of “Three Sisters” for Seattle’s Intiman Theater for next season and has commissions from Juilliard and Long Wharf for future work.
“It’s weird that it’s all happening now,” says the playwright, noting he began “Piazza” three years ago. “Singing Forest” goes back six years to when Gordon Edelstein commissioned the work for Seattle’s ACT Theater.
When the financially troubled ACT couldn’t undertake a production, Seattle’s Intiman — where Lucas had subsequently become associate artistic director under Bartlett Sher — took over. Eustis, then artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., was brought in to assist Lucas in the play’s long development. When Edelstein took over as head of Long Wharf, he committed to a production, following its summer ’04 preem at Intiman.
“Sales have been good for a new play in the January slot, that’s over three hours and that doesn’t have any stars,” says Edelstein. “Audience response has been robust, and I’ve been receiving positive letters and feedback from grateful theatergoers.”
Urged on by Eustis, Lucas says he has drastically changed the script since its bow in Seattle, including writing an entirely new third act.
“Oskar’s interested in the moral and trans-historical questions that great tragedies have always grappled with,” says Lucas.
At the center of the multigenerational play is Loe, played by Robin Bartlett, a longtime Lucas interpreter. The octogenarian Loe was a childhood patient of Freud in Vienna in the ’30s, escaped the Nazis in World War II — though her family did not — and became a lay analyst in New York. The play’s themes include abandonment, identity, psychoanalysis and the search for truth at all costs — all areas that connect with Lucas personally.
Lucas was a foundling, a day-old baby left in the back seat of a car in a repair shop in Atlanta in 1951. He grew up with adoptive parents in Devon, Pa., a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia, where his father worked for the FBI. His mother, a powerful force in his life, died in the mid-’90s.
“My mother is an omnipresent voice in all of my plays,” says Lucas. “There’s an ebullience and a shamelessness that belonged to my mother — that goes along with her narcissism. That may not have served me well socially but it has served me very well artistically.”