‘ Smash’ writer Re­beck brings new ‘ Way of the World’ to D. C.

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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.”

BILL O’LEARY / WASH­ING­TON POST

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