‘ Smash’ writer Rebeck brings new ‘ Way of the World’ to D. C.
What’s a hard- nosed Hollywood survivor like “NYPD Blue” and “Smash” writer Theresa Rebeck doing inside the cool, Shakespeare- ghosted marble of theFolgerTheatre?
Letting blue language fly in her update of the Restoration comedy “The Way of the World,” for one thing. William Congreve’s takedown of moneygrubbing nuptials is being updated to the Hamptons in a voice that sounds like pure Rebeck: energetic, contemporary, funny and brutally honest about gender and leverage.
“It remindedmeabout lives of the 1 percent and howpeople misbehavewhen their values are that distorted around sex and money and power,” Rebeckexplained of her“Way of the World” update, which started Tuesday and includes far naughtier modern byplay than the Folger’s audience is accustomed to.
“Congreve is pretty salty, too,” said Folger’s artistic producer, Janet Alexander Griffin, who contends that Rebeck’s wit is in sync with the original. The Folger rarely has living writers on site, so Griffin gave Rebeck — who has a PhD in Victorian melodrama — a tour of the rare material in the Shakespeare library’s vaults. “She lit up,” Griffin said. The prolific Rebeck has written almost a play per season since emerging nearly 30 years ago; bruising realistic comedies are her primary line, from the post- 9/ 11 dinnerparty- in- hell “Omnium Gatherum” to the recent sexismin- the- office “What We’re Up Against.” She wouldn’t seem to be the kind of writer who needs the lift provided by the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, the new- works project sweeping the city over the next two months with “The Way of theWorld” among the first of 24 slated shows.
In fact, it was during the 2011 Broadway run of her writing guru comedy “Seminar,” which is full of swagger, acidic wit and romantic backstabbing, that star Alan Rickman suggested adapting one of the similarly wicked Restoration comedies.
“It’s got that same kind of cruelty,” said Rebeck, who looked at an obscure 17thcentury suggestion Rickman made before settling on the Congreve staple.
Onthe other hand, Rebeck, who is directing her play at the Folger, has practically never been produced in Washington’s biggest theaters, although “Seminar” was notably good at Round House Theatre in 2014. Her fame generally simmers at mid- level; the biggest blast on her resume is running the first year of “Smash,” the NBCseries about the making of a new Broadway musical — then being “famously fired, without cause,” Rebeck said of her dismissal at the end of the gossipy backstage show’s first season.
“Did that ever bother me? Yes, it did,” Rebeck said of her place in the writing hierarchy, her tone rich with Whaddya expect? “I have taken more than my share of hits, I think, but I also feel privileged to be here. So I don’twant to sound blue.”
Rebeck, 59, was raised Roman Catholic outside Cincinnati, and was the bookish one among her five siblings. She studied English at Notre Dame before earning postgraduate degrees at Brandeis University in the 1980s. She moved to New York, picked up temp jobs and was quickly noticed by TV.
“It didn’t feel quick,” Rebeck said. “I was doing oneacts and festivals. We had no money. And there was a day when I finally thought, I have to getsomemoneywork.” The language in her earlybattle- ofthesexes comedies “Loose Knit” and “Spike Heels” had a crackle that translatedwell to the brisk pace of the small screen. She’s migrated back and forth ever since.
“No question TV taught me a thing or two about forward motion,” Rebeck said. But Rebeck is also deft at biting the Hollywood hands that have fed her; the inanity of bigwig executive demands is hilarious in her 2016 novel “I’m Glad About You,” about a Cincinnati woman who becomes a screen star. ( The depiction of sleeping with a powerful and manipulative film director is less riotous.) Her memoir/ guidebook “Free Fire Zone” is a juicy read about the hazards of writing not just for TV and movies—“Harriet the Spy” is among Rebeck’s film credits— but also in the supposedly noble, often insulting realm of the theater. Rebeck’s first rule of showbiz survival, regardless of platform: Never lookweak.
Then there’s “What Came Next,” the essay she wrote after being fired from “Smash.”
“I was an excellent general,” she wrote of the bitter aftermath and trying to bounce back. “But to prove I could do it again, I had to be a good girl.”
“I used to get into trouble when somebody would say, ‘ I want this character to do this,’ and I’d go, ‘ Yeah, but she wouldn’t do that,’ ” Rebeck said. “I’d get in a lot of trouble for that. I wasn’t trying to be difficult.” That’s her standing critique of Hollywood, and it also goes for “Smash.” “It was painful to talk about for a while. But I stand bywhat I did.”
“She’s gotten angrier in a good way,” said Kristine Nielsen, a busy New York stage performer and frequent Rebeck collaborator who’s playing the rich aunt in “The Way of the World.” For years Nielsen’s been friends with Rebeck and her husband, Jess Lynn ( two practically grown kids, family based in Brooklyn). She compares Rebeck to “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains ItAll for You” writer Christopher Durang, another Catholicraised playwright whose comic plays have sharp fangs. “They write in wildly different styles, but they both have a need to make the world better,” Nielsen said. “And an anger that the world is not listening to them.”
Sometimes the world catches up. The workplace sexism of “What We’re Up Against” rang true when staged last season at Washington’sKeegan Theatre, and the play made its off- Broadway debut as the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.
“That was so crazy,” Rebeck said. “Audiences came and said, ‘ Yeah, that’s what it’s like.’ But to have so manymen say, ‘ I don’t see it’ — somebody said, ‘ Why didn’t you tell us?’ We did! Women have been saying this for years and years.”
She’s directing more these days, not only the play at the Folger but also “Trouble,” an upcoming independent movie she scripted that stars Anjelica Huston and Bill Pullman as squabbling siblings. Of all the showbiz avenues, theater pays least; why keep writing for the stage?
“Because it’s beautiful!” Rebeck said, breaking into a rare broad smile. “It’s the way I understand theworld.”