Monday, March 03, 2003

The Sound of Fury

March 2, 2003

Something about Stephen Adly Guirgis reminds you of a baby.
A lumbering, hairy baby for sure, and a little unkempt,
too, the kind of baby who generally looks as if he could
use a shave and a good night's sleep. But with his soft,
handsome features, dark, puppy eyes looking out from under
a mop of salted-by-gray black hair and a manner that seems
naturally chastened, he gives off the sense of being
unformed, all potential, as if he's waiting for experience
and maturity to dawn on him. He's 38.

Guirgis (pronounced GEAR-giss) is the kind of guy who
survives on intermittent trips to the deli for coffee and
cigarettes. He lives in a three-room apartment on the far
West Side of Manhattan, and at the moment, he's sitting on
the floor (because I'm in the only chair), wearing a
football jersey and soiled jeans, with a plastic foam cup,
an ashtray and a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. There's a
desk with a Mac on it, and a wide-screen television across
the small room. In the bedroom next door is a mattress on
the floor. The kitchen is an unholy mess, and he has no
satisfying explanation for why he seems to be using the
counter for a laundry basket.

''I'm not organized,'' he says.

This is the overgrown kid
who may be the best playwright in America under 40.

''There's a line in 'Our Lady,' a character who quotes St.
Paul,'' he says, referring to ''Our Lady of 121st Street,''
his latest play, about a neighborhood reunion in Harlem.
''He says, 'When I became a man, I put away childish
things.' And all my characters are loaded with their
childish things. And that's because I'm loaded with my
childish things.''

You may not have heard of him till now, but Guirgis already
belongs on the list of accomplished young American
playwrights that includes Suzan-Lori Parks and David
Auburn, the last two winners of the Pulitzer Prize. And his
improvement curve is steeper. He has been a playwright for
less than a decade; seven years ago, the director of his
first play (a one-act that was handwritten on a yellow pad)
had to explain what a rewrite was.

Unschooled as a writer, he has never been associated with
any of the prominent theaters that yearn to take young
playwrights under their wings (though he has now been
commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club and the South
Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.). Instead, he has
become the voice of the scruffy, scrappy LAByrinth Theater
Company, an ensemble that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman,
John Patrick Shanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega and John Ortiz, who
goaded him into writing and then coalesced around the work
he produced. As a playwright, he seems to have come out of
nowhere, a baby born full grown.

In fact, he came from New York, the son of an Irish
Catholic mother and an Egyptian father, and in his work, he
is making a bid to become a kind of city laureate. His
plays teem with ethnic variety, but the demographic they
most consistently represent, and to which he evidently
belongs, is of a different sort: that of the perpetually
overwhelmed, those who feel they are helpless against the
forces of their lives, drowning in their own

Tormented as they are, his characters don't know what to do
about it but yell. They don't have the discretionary income
or the navel-gazing impulse to take their troubles into
therapy. They are alert for a scam and a quick buck, the
kind of New Yorkers who don't take nothin' off nobody, who
scrap for the tiniest victory, who glare with menace when
jostled on the subway. You don't find them in the theater
audience much.

But one of the most affecting qualities of Guirgis's
writing is the bond he creates between his characters and
the people who do go to the theater, who do go to therapy
to assuage their anxieties. This is, after all, the kind of
person Guirgis has become. When he was growing up in
Manhattan, he says, he and his friends never liked the rich
kids, the preppies; nonetheless, Kenneth Lonergan's play
about them, ''This Is Our Youth,'' ''really affected me
because 15 years later I could have empathy for the kids in
my neighborhood that I hated.'' This is the compassion that
surfaces in his work, and at a time when all New Yorkers
are united by taut nerves and a sense of vulnerability, his
plays seem especially pertinent.

''I've lived my entire life in New York, and it informs
everything,'' Guirgis says. ''Sept. 11 reinforced for me
that whatever I'm writing about, it better be something
that really matters to me because we don't know what's
going to happen tomorrow. And for me it's stories about
people in pain in New York.''

To this point Guirgis's work includes only three
full-length plays, but each has been a leap from the last.
''Our Lady of 121st Street,'' the newest and fullest, is a
knockout, a bruising comic group portrait of the graduates
of a Catholic school who, 15 years later, gather for the
funeral of a favorite teacher only to find that her body
has been stolen. After a brief run in the tiny LAByrinth
space in Chelsea last fall, commercial producers raised
$750,000; this Thursday, in the middle of rather grim
economic times Off Broadway, it opens at the Union Square

''I read the first act and thought it was the most
extraordinary piece of writing I'd seen in years,'' says
Robyn Goodman, a veteran producer who committed to the
project before Guirgis even finished the play, which, in
typical fashion, he did at the very last moment. ''I didn't
even ask where the play was going. I didn't care.''

Guirgis's previous play was ''Jesus Hopped the A Train,'' a
philosophical jailhouse drama set at Rikers Island, where
the legal system mishandles two prisoners -- a serial
killer who has found God and an angry street kid with a
cause. It was well received in New York, but even more so
in London, where it was nominated for an Olivier Award, the
London equivalent of the Tony. And his first play, ''In
Arabia We'd All Be Kings,'' a grim slice of life in and
around a divey Times Square bar, opens in London next

This sudden success has allowed a perennially penniless
Guirgis to earn some money writing for television and to
get an assignment to write a film about death-row inmates
wrongfully convicted. In January, ''Jesus'' was performed
in Chile, and he was received there as a celebrity. None of
this seems to have altered his self-flagellating frame of

''I was a guest of honor in Chile, giving press
conferences, being feted, looking forward to the opening of
my play at the Union Square, followed by the movie and all
this stuff,'' he says with emphatic disbelief. ''You know
-- top of the world. And I was miserable.''

Guirgis is at his best when his characters get their dander
up, which they often do. They are not retiring folks. They
are angry people who are conflicted about the righteousness
of their anger, which makes many of their rants not only
moving but hilarious. Like the legless white priest in
''Our Lady'' who admits to a black penitent that he doesn't
much like black people, they have a measure of
self-knowledge, but not always self-control.

In ''Jesus Hopped the A Train,'' for example, a street kid
named Angel has been arrested for shooting a cult leader --
in the behind. As Angel tells his lawyer that he did it to
avenge a friend who was brainwashed, his magnificent
high-decibel screed could easily be a manifesto for the
frustrated, the powerless, the disenfranchised of New York.
To hear the full melody, you have to imagine the following
sprinkled with obscenities:

''My friend Joey should be doing what you're doing! He
should be a public defender, or a drug counselor, helpin'
the people, whatever. But where is he? He's out! Gone! And
why? Why is he not here? Why? Do you believe that Reverend
Kim is the actual Son of God? That a man deported from his
OWN country and convicted of tax evasion in THIS one could
even SPEAK for God, let alone BE God? That a man who STEALS
people, has them selling flowers on the street, gettin'
rich off them -- look me in my eye and tell me that a man
like that should be allowed to do what he's doing! With a
government approved tax-exempt status and a full police
escort? Where's my mother's full police escort when she
gets off the subway from work after midnight and has to
walk home alone? Where's Mother Teresa's Lexus? And how
'bout you? You a public defender, and if you're any good at
lawyering at all, you could prolly make a lot more money
working someplace else, right, right? But you don't do
that, do you? So where's your mansion? Where's YOUR
Frappuccino, swimming pool, mistress, Son a God wonderland?
He stole my friend. I shot him in the. . . . Now I'm in
jail, and he's eating banana cream pie in some plush
hospital bed reading his Wall Street Journal.''

Indeed, in Guirgis's plays, character after character has a
moment of detonation in which the fury at being dealt a bad
hand erupts. The stories involve physical violence, but
onstage the only violence is verbal, in the volume of the
dialogue, the intensity of the frustration.

To hear just about anyone tell it, Guirgis has this
frustration in himself, and though he admits to having ''an
explosive temper,'' it is mostly inner-directed. As a
writer, he is a world-class procrastinator, with an acute
fear of being held accountable for how he fills the blank

''He's always second-guessed himself as a writer,'' says
Hoffman, who has become Guirgis's chief interpreter. ''He's
a real writer, one of our great writers, and what I want
him to believe is that he has a responsibility to the
theater community and the company to keep writing. I want
him to believe he's responsible for that talent.''

The playwright John Patrick Shanley, also a member of
LAByrinth, says that Guirgis's plays are about ''the
reunion of various issues he's keeping aloft'' and that
when he's writing ''he lives in a dynamic where he keeps
the pieces in his head as long as he can without reunifying
them.'' This is what makes him crazy. ''I lived with him
for two weeks when he was allegedly working on 'Our Lady,'
and all he did was clean,'' Shanley says. ''He'd go into
tirades about his own character, about what a loathsome,
worthless person he was, and this went along with his
constantly eating cookies. So he'd begin to look worse as
his environment became more pristine.''

Guirgis cops to all this, though on first encounter none of
it is apparent -- not the rages, not the sulks, not the
obsessive binges on food, alcohol or other, not so legal,
vices. Instead he is almost supplicating and compliant,
calling up an hour before an appointment to say he's
running late, but that he'd be able to get there sooner if
he could use your apartment to shave in.

''I think I know what it is,'' he says of his
procrastination. ''It's fear. The many flavors of fear.''
And his mounting success, of course, means mounting
expectations. ''I remember after 'Arabia', I was afraid to
write 'Jesus,' and after 'Jesus' I was afraid to write 'Our
Lady,' but the real fear, whatever the circumstances, when
you're in a good place or not, is of just showing up for
the day. It's a mysterious thing. I don't understand why
it's not a given that when I get out of bed I'm going to
jump up and brush my teeth and get in the shower, because
it seems to me that a lot of people, that's what they do in
the morning.''

Guirgis, who calls himself a ''lost'' Catholic, talks about
himself as being in a spiritual crisis, revealing precisely
the sort of personal angst that his characters carry
around. ''When I was a kid and I'd be in trouble,'' he
says, ''I'd ask God to help me, and then once the fire was
out, I wouldn't talk to Him anymore. When I got older, I
began to find I needed some help spiritually, just to
function. Why? The honest answer is, like, 12-step stuff.
And 'Jesus' had to do with my struggle with the third step,
which is turning your will and your life over to the care
of God as you understand it. But the thing is, when you get
the help, you start to believe in the way of living that
embraces that, and then here comes, you know, the
responsibilities that go with it: To be a good person, to
not steal, to be honorable in your relationships with
women, with friends, to treat yourself lovingly. That's a
lot of responsibility.

''So your options are to forget the whole thing and go back
to the existence without any spiritual connection. Or
embrace the spiritual connection, but then you've got to
deal with the burden of living up to the admission policy.

Guirgis is one of those people to whom good stories seem to
happen. Good storytellers usually are, but even so, his
background is unusual. His mother grew up in Newark, the
daughter of a deaf alcoholic printer. She stood up to his
rages, often to shield her mother and sister. It was a
loving but difficult upbringing, Guirgis says, and ''she
grew up in a household terrified of intimacy and
marriage.'' Nearly 40 and still single, she was
volunteering as an adviser to foreign exchange students
when a grateful Egyptian told her to call his family if she
were ever inclined to go to Cairo. She was, and she did,
and there she met the student's brother, who was in his
40's and assumed to be a confirmed bachelor. Three days
later they were engaged.

In 1963, they moved to New York, where they lived on the
Upper West Side and sent Stephen and his younger sister to
Catholic school -- the Corpus Christi School on, yes, West
121st Street. It was later, at the Rhodes School, a private
academy where he was on scholarship, that the profligacy
began. ''I remember the first day of school, I was smoking
a cigarette somewhere outside, and someone opened a vial of
blow and dipped both ends of the cigarette in it and said,
'Here, man, it's better this way.' That was the first day
of school. It was the beginning of a lot of lost years.''

Guirgis attended the State University of New York at Albany
and became a famous campus character. Over the seven and a
half years it took him to graduate, he got to pursue his
interest in acting and to meet John Ortiz, a fellow student
six years his junior. It was Ortiz who in 1993 invited him
to audition for a new acting company.

The LAByrinth company was begun as Latino Actors Base, LAB.
Though it has since grown into a multiethnic group that
produces original material, it continues its original
function: that of a theater ''gym,'' a place where actors
work out, offering one another classes in technique,
workshopping plays written by members.

Guirgis was one of the first non-Latinos admitted, and he
immediately knew he had found a home. But it wasn't until
1995 that, at Ortiz's urging, he began to write. His first
effort was ''Francisco and Benny,'' a one-act about two
neighborhood guys sitting on a stoop and debating the
relative virtues of partying and planning for the future, a
characteristic Guirgis dichotomy. Its four performances
were a turning point, both for LAByrinth and for Guirgis

''Everybody laughed at the stuff that was intended to be
funny, and then when the play got serious, it got quiet,''
Guirgis says, still with a note of amazement. ''People
seemed to be having a theater experience that was good.''

These days, everyone who knows Guirgis seems to be
simultaneously exasperated by and in love with him. This is
especially true of the members of the LAByrinth, who are
also his closest friends. He drives them all nuts with his
self-immolating predilections, as well as with his habitual
procrastination. It took a grievous confrontation with
Hoffman to squeeze the second act of ''Our Lady'' out of
him at a time when the actors were already in tech
rehearsals for act one.

''I'd see him at his desk at 3, 4 in the morning,'' says
John Gould Rubin, the lead producer on both ''Jesus'' and
''Our Lady.'' ''And he'd be sitting there, staring at the
screen endlessly, and he wouldn't have written anything.
The tension would get higher and higher, and I'd want to
hit him, and he'd be like, all sad, like 'How can I control
the muse?' I went through every resource I had to conjure
stuff out of him, and I always failed. It's a Zen thing,
like it's only when he gives up and acquiesces to the
futility of inspiration that it happens. He writes
everything at the final moment out of a complete despair.''

Until that moment comes, says Liza Colon-Zayas, a LAByrinth
member, ''he has these outrageous excuses.'' One day not
long ago, Colon-Zayas says, he showed up at a LAByrinth
class for which he was supposed to have written scenes,
''and he told us all, with tears in his eyes, that he had
to take his mother to the emergency room.''

He was lying.

This kind of foolish desperation is, in
many ways, at the heart of Guirgis's work. Last fall, as
opening night for ''Our Lady'' approached and the play
wasn't done, he was bicycling home from a meeting with
Hoffman, who had unmanned him with a tearful and pleading
sermon about the strain he was putting on their artistic
partnership, not to mention their friendship. Somewhere on
10th Avenue, a truck gave an unnecessary honk, startling
him and almost throwing him off. It sent him into a
murderous rage.

''And I started screaming,'' he says. ''And I chased the
truck for five blocks, ready to fight, until I caught up
with it at a red light.''

At that point, he says, he caught himself. ''At the light,
I just sat down on the side of the road and sobbed for like
half an hour.''

The people in ''Our Lady'' have that in them: the woman who
has never got over a heartbreak; the detective whose son
was raped and murdered on a playground; the man trapped by
the guilt of having, years ago, accidentally beaned his
little brother with a brick. Indeed, Guirgis's plays are
compendiums of the things that can go wrong -- in a moment
or a month, accidentally or by our own hands -- in lives
that might not be so great to begin with.

''The thing is, that kind of anger is always misdirected;
it's always chasing the ghost of something,'' he says.
''But there's so much in the world to get angry about; it's
easy to hook into it.''

Bruce Weber is a theater critic for The

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