At a window table in the roped-off V.I.P. section of
that quintessential Broadway hangout, the coffee shop in
the Edison Hotel, Sam Shepard sat down and ordered a cup
of coffee. All around the restaurant were telltale signs
of the alien world he had invaded: Broadway producers
and press agents gabbing over bagels and eggs; European
tourists poring over listings for the splashy musicals
they want to see.
It was not the likeliest place to
find a famously private playwright and sometime movie
actor who has spent the better part of three decades
cranking out weird, wildly theatrical, out-there plays
about drifters and faded rock stars and others living on
the edge, the sort of play more often viewed from a
folding chair in a 60-seat theater in the East Village.
And yet Mr. Shepard suddenly has
every reason to linger over his coffee in an industry
eatery. For the first time in his career, he is Broadway
front and center, right down to the glittering marquee,
the marketing strategy and the multiple Tony
nominations. His newly rewritten version of his
17-year-old family drama, "Buried Child," opened last
month at the Brooks Atkinson Theater to glowing notices
after an acclaimed run at the Steppenwolf Theater in
Chicago. And no one is more taken aback by the turn of
events than Mr. Shepard.
"This is a total surprise to me," he
said. "I'm not denying that it's exciting to have a play
on Broadway. But this play just happens to fit here.
It's not that I'm going to start writing plays for
No one would ever accuse Mr. Shepard
of being commercial. Over the years, he has experienced
artistic success with plays like "True West," "A Lie of
the Mind," "Curse of the Starving Class" and more
recently "Simpatico." His works are so highly regarded
in the theater world that he has been chosen by the
Signature Theater, the Off Off Broadway company that
devotes an entire season to the works of a single living
American playwright, to be the subject of its 1996-97
But the opportunity for success on
the scale of a Broadway hit has never come his way, as
it rarely does for virtually any serious playwright
anymore. Even when the original Off Broadway production
of "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in
1979, he could not take advantage of the triumph: the
play closed the day before the prize was announced.
How much Mr. Shepard craves the wider
mainstream audiences that Broadway commands is hard to
tell. (He has, oddly enough, achieved greater fame as an
actor in mainstream Hollywood films like "The Right
Stuff" and "Baby Boom". But during a recent, hourlong
interview at the coffee shop, the 52-year-old playwright
said he was not concerned about who came to see his play
or how long it lasted; what intrigued him, he said, was
seeing it onstage again.
"You have to take it with a grain of
salt," he said. "It's here today, gone tomorrow. It
really doesn't have to do with Broadway. It's just great
to see the play have another life."
On the other hand, Mr. Shepard was
not uninterested in how the play was treated by the Tony
Award voters. With the playwright's blessing, the play's
producers convinced the administrators of the awards
that because Mr. Shepard had done so much rewriting --
near half of its lines had been altered -- it should be
considered for best play, not best revival of a play
"I said, 'O.K., enter the S.O.B.,' "
Mr. Shepard said. As a result, "Buried Child" is up for
five Tonys on Sunday night, including best new play.
During the interview, the playwright
talked about his days as a young writer on the Lower
East Side in the 1960's, his worship of modern
playwrights like Samuel Beckett ("I think 'Endgame' is
just a jewel," he said) and his views on the theater,
for which he expresses nothing short of contempt. He
rarely goes to the theater, he said, because he finds it
so unbearably boring.
"Really, I'd rather watch a rodeo or
the Masters," Mr. Shepard, an avid golfer, said.
He described the arrival of "Buried
Child" on Broadway as a fortunate fluke that may never
be repeated. (In an era when so few new plays land on
Broadway, that a Shepard play can open there at all is
viewed by many in the theater as a triumph.) He added
that it was Gary Sinise, director of both the
Steppenwolf and Broadway productions, who had persuaded
him to return to the play, which tells the darkly comic
story of an American family gone haywire.
"He kept saying, 'How about 'Buried
Child'?" Mr. Shepard said. "And I had wanted to look at
the play again." Specifically, he wanted to re-examine a
character whom he believes he was too young to
understand when he created him, that of Vince, the son
who returns home to discover that no one in the family
"In many of my plays, there was a
kind of autobiographical character, in the form of a son
or young man," he said. "The purpose of it, of course,
was to write about myself. That character was always the
least fully realized. Eighteen years later, you realize,
'That's what he was about.' It's the same in life, when
you say, 'That was me?' "
As a young playwright, Mr. Shepard
loathed rewriting. Now he finds it "a whole other art
form; it's about craftsmanship." In rehearsals, he said,
he changed lines on the spot, a practice that reminded
him of the beginning of his life as a playwright in the
mid-60's, when he would dash off plays in a kind of
fever and get them staged almost immediately at the
Village Gate and other tiny theaters. "From a writer's
point of view, it couldn't have been better," he said.
His idiosyncratic writing routine has
changed very little. "Laptop" has not entered his
vocabulary. "I write in notebooks, like this," he
explained, pulling out a compact spiral notebook filled
with his handwriting. "That goes into bigger notebooks,
and then to typewriters."
After finishing with "Buried Child,"
Mr. Shepard began rewriting another of his earlier
plays, "The Tooth of Crime," which is to be staged as
part of the Signature season. To accomplish that, he had
to return to his home outside Minneapolis. The
distractions of Broadway were simply too much.