Broadway’s roster of playwrights gains three new names this spring—a development as healthy for the theater as it is for these long-suffering creators. The youngest, Rajiv Joseph (he’s 36), has already seen his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo declared “the best play about the Iraq war” by the Los Angeles Times. Jez Butterworth’s raucous Jerusalem, opening next week, drew intense praise and enormous crowds in the playwright’s native London. And hometown hero Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street) makes his Broadway debut this week with The Motherf**ker With the Hat. At the Algonquin, they welcomed one another to the club, compared survival strategies, and discussed just how much profanity you can stuff into a script.
You’ve all been at this for a long time. Is Broadway intimidating, even though you’re old pros?
Stephen Adly Guirgis: It would be disingenuous to say that there’s nothing special or exciting for me. As a bike messenger, I used to deliver packages on Broadway all the time. I live in a building where people looked at me like I was a degenerate. And now they’re like, “Oh, you have a play on Broadway!” It’s kind of like if you’re a basketball player: You want to play at the Garden. Also, you know people are already forecasting your doom online at the first preview.
Rajiv Joseph: You can’t listen to the crowd noise, or else you’re gonna miss your free throws.
And shows die so fast on Broadway: Is it even a good place to put on a straight play anymore?
S.A.G.: The fact is, if we don’t get the reviews, the show will close in two weeks.
Jez Butterworth: [London’s West End] is not quite that brutal. I was at this Broadway opening—a translation of a Norwegian play or something. At the party afterward, after the [bad] review came out, everyone went home! I just sat there.
S.A.G.: Party’s over. But to the people involved, it’s not just a business. The theater we’re in is where they did [Lanford Wilson’s] Burn This. And that changed my fucking life.
J.B.: Me too! I saw it in London—I was about 17 years old.
S.A.G.: And people are gonna come see Mark Rylance or Robin Williams in these plays, and somebody’s life is gonna get changed.
Stephen and Rajiv, you both have famous actors in your plays—practically a prerequisite for doing a nonmusical play on Broadway now. Does that bother either of you?
R.J.: It’s an aspect of the business. Why would anyone come to New York and see a play about Iraq when they could go see a musical? They come to New York to relax and have fun, and Broadway relies on those people.
S.A.G.:Chris [Rock] came in and auditioned.
R.J.: He auditioned? Really? Jesus.
S.A.G.: I knew he had skills, but it was only when I sat down with him that I realized, oh, this guy, he’s actually one of us.
What has your experience been like with other playwrights in the city? Are people supportive or competitive?
R.J.: I’ve never met Stephen before—this is a big day for me. I swear to God, I’m a playwright because of him. I saw Our Lady of 121st Street three times.
S.A.G.:We all touch each other in different ways. A few years ago, I went through a really rough time and I couldn’t write, so I did something really stupid—I sent an e-mail to every playwright that I respected. The responses were illuminating. Some people are more competitive by nature, and their response was “Do what you gotta do!”
That’s pretty passive-aggressive, telling you not to write.
R.J.: “One less person in the game!”
S.A.G.: But then I found a lot of compassionate responses from people I greatly admired, and I think, the sooner we can be there for each other—because it’s fucking lonely.
So why keep at it? You have your gigs in film and TV, and there’s no money in plays. And plenty of people find film or cable just as engaging and creatively fulfilling.
S.A.G.: I certainly remember having great experiences in a movie theater, but they don’t compare to the visceral head-to-toe feelings that I have seeing a play.
J.B.:And it asks a lot of you. The fact that it can be worse than film and better than film suggests that it’s a greater gamble. A bad play—it’s painful. I think theater should get marketed like that, as a big event, as a greater risk. Do you want a really intense relationship, or do you want one that’s just gonna toddle off?
You can’t curse so much on TV, either—or even cable. We’re talking beyond-HBO profanity levels, in all three of your plays, and even in Stephen’s title.
S.A.G.: It’s the right title for my play, but I get a little embarrassed by it, because if you want to make a statement, the title is not the right place. No one asked me to change it, so I didn’t.
J.B.: It’s so much a part of how I grew up. Any school you’d go to in England, it’s like a piece of punctuation. I used to work in a market at St. Albans with this Jewish guy who had fought in the Six-Day War, and he’d been shot through the head. He didn’t say much. And one day he saw this boy drop a load of clothes into the gutter, and he goes, “The fucking fucker’s fucked the fucking fucker.” It’s grammatically correct!
R.J.: It’s a fucking great sentence.