Most of us first met Matt Salinger in Franny and Zooey’s dedication, which begins, “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean.” Forty years later, in his new life as a theater and film producer, J.D.’s son is pushing something a bit more palatable on his peers.
Salinger – sandy-haired and six-foot-four, a onetime soap stud and occasional film actor – has turned a debut solo show by a virtually unknown playwright-performer into an improbable Off Broadway hit: The Syringa Tree has won rave reviews and adulation from the likes of Mike Nichols and Rosie O’Donnell. Salinger came across Pamela Gien’s play, a coming-of-age monologue about her family’s ragged survival in South Africa, while scouting material for New Moon Productions, his eight-year-old film company. Moved to tears after a California acting-class workshop, he pledged his support. “I wanted to sell it as a screenplay,” Gien says, “but Matt kept saying ‘You have to take this to New York.’ ” Salinger arranged several backers’ auditions, and eventually a run at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, where Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and financier and friend Dan Levitan agreed to underwrite the show.
On September 6, The Syringa Tree began previews at Playhouse 91 to almost empty houses. Knowing the play’s future rested on the critics’ verdicts, Salinger held off on promotional spending. His plans were unexpectedly tripped up by another sort of press when his sister Margaret released Dream Catcher, her scandalous memoir of life with Father. Over the next few weeks, as Salinger defended his family in the wake of the media frenzy, his first theatrical production was losing $20,000 a week. Finally, of course, the reviews – and with them, the audiences – did come. O’Donnell even got teary on-air while interviewing the show’s star.
Salinger has extended the play’s packed-house run in preparation for a world tour and a film adaptation. The Syringa Tree has become his calling card – it’s made him a star. “I wrote Rosie a note and said when she finishes Seussical, she should step into Syringa Tree with us,” he deadpans. “Pam really needs a vacation.”