WHEN you write one of the most produced plays of the decade at the age of 30, you can presumably shift your focus to whatever you want. But for David Auburn, who earned that distinction (on the basis of subsequent professional stagings) with his 2000 play, “Proof,” a chunk of the last 11 years has been spent doing what others have asked him to.
Some of these jobs were no-brainers, like the screenplay for the film version of “Proof.” Others had a neat symmetry, like the revision of “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson. (Each won the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as a Tony Award while in his 30s: Larson posthumously in 1996 for “Rent,” Mr. Auburn five years later.)And now there is “The New York Idea,” which Mr. Auburn described as a “gut renovation” of a long-forgotten Langdon Mitchell comedy of manners set in Washington Square. A sort of madcap gloss on “Private Lives” filtered through Edith Wharton and Clare Booth Luce, Mr. Auburn’s version of that 1906 play will open Wednesday at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Commissioned by the Atlantic Theater, “The New York Idea” is perhaps the least intuitive choice yet for Mr. Auburn, now a 41-year-old father of two.
“There’s no plan,” he said of his somewhat curious career trajectory. “Some interesting things came along, and I took them on.” At a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from the theater, Mr. Auburn, solidly built and still boyish looking, answered questions cautiously but not disagreeably, with the unhurried composure of a man who can afford to do anything that strikes him as interesting, and nothing that doesn’t. It’s hardly unusual these days for youngish playwrights to spend blocks of time away from the stage and in the lucrative land of cable television. And Mr. Auburn is making his first foray into that field with a pilot for HBO, about a Claus von Bülow-esque surgeon (played by Kevin Kline) acclimating to the outside world after serving a prison sentence for murder. There have also been a handful of film projects: “The Girl in the Park,” which he also directed, and the Sandra Bullock romance “The Lake House,” along with a few unproduced screenplays.
But during this time his stage output has consisted of a pair of one-act plays at Ensemble Studio Theater; a one-man adaptation of the World War II journals of the Romanian Jewish author Mihail Sebastian, which the Keen Company produced Off Broadway in 2004; and a handful of directing jobs, including a well-received revival of Edward Albee’s “Delicate Balance” at the Berkshire Theater Festival last summer, and coming in May, a new Michael Weller play, “Side Effects,” at the MCC Theater.
“I would like to be quicker and more prolific, but the process is the process,” he said. Of the various adaptations and commissions, he said, only “The Journals of Mihail Sebastian” qualified as what he called a passion project. “Those journals had affected me strongly, and it was a time right after ‘Proof’ where I thought: ‘This is a particularly good time to do something that has virtually no commercial potential. Take myself to Romania, buy the rights to this thing — when else will I have a chance to do that?’"
“The New York Idea” would appear at first to be similarly uncommercial. With its once-and-maybe-future married couples, its sassy servants and its mortified older generation, the play basks in both its modernity and its old-fashioned construction. (Mark Brokaw, the director, described its subtext as “Washington Square defending its gates against the interlopers.”) Mr. Auburn isn’t above tossing into the mix the occasional dig at that era’s self-conscious iconoclasm. “I am for complete equality between the classes and the sexes,” Vida Phillimore, the play’s main provocateur, pronounces. “The races I am still considering, but I expect to make a rather startling decision shortly.”
Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic, said his theater prided itself on linking playwrights with less-than-obvious material. “Habitually people sort of ‘niche’ authors, whether it be David Mamet or Lanford Wilson or David Auburn, when in fact they have much wider interests,” he said. “David is incredibly technically skilled, with a dry sense of humor and an acute ear for storytelling. That’s particularly important with something like this that needed a bit of tightening.”
Both he and Mr. Brokaw agreed that the revisions were extensive; Mr. Pepe called the resulting work “more muscular.” A few minor roles have been winnowed out (though the dozen remaining characters feel decadent by today’s budget-conscious standards), and certain plot threads now weave through the play far more consistently.
“I had a feeling of freedom with this one because I didn’t feel that I was violating a sacred text,” Mr. Auburn said. “It’s really not revived. And not to disparage Mitchell’s work, but if you read the original, you’ll see why it’s not revived.”
He said the biggest change to his newly “efficient comedy machine,” as he called it, was not structural but ideological. The play’s title comes from a tirade by one of the husbands, a potential jiltee: “The New York idea of marriage. Marry for whim and leave the rest to luck and the divorce courts.” The character’s and the author’s derision comes across strongly in the original text.
“I think Mitchell wrote it with a kind of polemical purpose in mind, which was to warn against the dangers of the too-available divorce, and that theme didn’t appeal to me,” Mr. Auburn said. “But what does remain is this idea that this is a rigid, rule-based society where one of the rules is changing rapidly.”
Mr. Brokaw took cast members on field trips to the Players club (formerly the private home of Edwin Booth) across from Gramercy Park and Grace Church to soak up some of the early-20th-century atmosphere, but Mr. Auburn’s research was confined largely to the bits of Wharton and William Dean Howells he had floating around in his head.
And, of course, the original play. Mr. Auburn’s career, as it happens, is not so dissimilar from that of Langdon Mitchell. “The New York Idea,” which was extremely popular in 1906, is surrounded in Mitchell’s bibliography by adaptations and translations, notably “Becky Sharp,” his take on perhaps the pre-eminent comedy of manners, Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.”
But Mitchell fell in with the husband-and-wife team of Harrison and Minnie Fiske, the director (Harrison) and the star (Minnie) of the original “New York Idea,” whose heated battle with the monopolistic Theatrical Syndicate resulted in their being blackballed from many choice theaters. By contrast, Mr. Auburn’s scarcity over the last decade seems to have made artistic directors like Mr. Pepe and Lynne Meadow, whose Manhattan Theater Club presented the premiere of his hit play — a mystery about a mathematical proof — more desirous of his return. “We’ve been in constant contact since ‘Proof,’ ” Ms. Meadow said.
It appears that she will soon get her wish. “The Columnist,” Mr. Auburn’s look at the 1960s through the eyes of the increasingly hawkish newspaperman Joseph Alsop, has been penciled in for next season at Manhattan Theater Club. Incidentally, Mr. Auburn’s previous go-around with the theater, the one that put him in a position to pluck an obscure comedy out of mothballs or adapt wartime journals or just spend time with his two girls, came about when the script department brought him to Ms. Meadow’s attention. The original plan? To put him to work on a science-theme play — with a commission.