Lyle Kessler, New York’s old and new playwright
A writer takes Broadway and Off Broadway at the same time
After more than 30 years of West Coast sun and valet parking, playwright Lyle Kessler would be forgiven for slowly re-entering the hurly-burly of New York theatre.
But instead, he’s going full throttle. He’s not only shepherding his best-known play, the 1983 psychological thriller Orphans, to a Broadway debut in April, but also celebrating his new play Collision, now playing at Rattlestick Theatre.
Presented by the Amoralists, whose sprawling blend of empathy and anarchy has earned it a white-hot reputation among downtown tastemakers, Collision opens the typical tinderbox of collegiate insecurities—philosophical, sexual, intellectual—and tosses in a handful of matches.
On the day of the play’s first preview, a press release announced that it had shifted genres during rewrites, changing from a black comedy to a drama. That suggests how active Kessler has been with this production.
“I had a couple readings [of the play] here and there,” Kessler says. “But everyone was scared to do it except the Amoralists.”
The fearlessness is mutual, according to the Amoralists artistic director James Kautz, who also stars in Collision as Grange, a charismatic young man with a gift for nudging people in the wrong direction. “Lyle’s about as ornery as it gets,” he says. “There’s nothing precious about him. He’s the first one and the last one in the theatre.”
Kessler often refers to his plays as parables—”I never want them to be naturalistic”—and Collision is no exception. “I see this as a modern-day morality play,” he says. “In the medieval morality play, there was the Devil. Mine is more complicated than that.” Even as Grange asserts his will over a cohort of acolytes—a fragile roommate, a dissolute professor, and the young woman who confusedly flits among all three men—Kessler and Kautz both stress the complexity behind the character’s actions.
“He doesn’t convince them to do anything that isn’t already inside them,” Kautz says. “All their insecurities and fears: they’re in all of us. And sometimes there’s this weird, sad misstep, and nobody understands how that happens. I think that’s what Lyle is trying to do here.”
Kessler’s Broadway experience is limited to exactly one performance of his play The Watering Place in 1969, but his return promises to be more noteworthy. Shia LeBeouf and Alec Baldwin have already been cast in two of the roles in Orphans, and Kessler says the third and final role is not far behind.
And even after 30 years of Orphans productions around the world, he isn’t entirely averse to taking a fresh look at the text. “The only thing I would consider is one little moment that [director] Dan [Sullivan] mentioned,” he says. “Other than that, it is what it is.”
Collision, by comparison, has undergone heavy revisions during both rehearsals and previews. “Lyle writes in this heightened, reality-plus-one kind of way,” Kautz says. “And without giving too much away, we found ourselves stripping a lot of things away given today’s climate.”
With two high-profile New York productions this year and a new play being developed at New York Theatre Workshop with Billy Crudup and Bobby Cannavale, Kessler seems to be acclimating to New York City life. “I’m not sure where it’s coming from,” he says, “but I’m doing the best writing I’ve ever done in my life right now.”
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Russ Rowland