NEW YORK — "I'm too tired to be anxious," said playwright Richard Greenberg, looking worn out with anxiety as he settled into a booth at a Chelsea diner.
This neighborhood canteen, dubbed his "office" by the late theatrical agent Helen Merrill, is where he conducts "business," broadly defined as any professional obligation requiring him to leave his nearby apartment and temporarily abandon his real work, the writing of deliciously urbane, hyper-articulate plays.
If Greenberg seems a little strung-out these days, it's with good reason. He may just be the busiest dramatist in America right now. Two of his plays have had their world premieres on Broadway this spring, his adaptation of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" at the Cort Theatre and "The Assembled Parties" at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
In addition, he has written the book for the musical adaptation of Todd Haynes' 2002 film "Far From Heaven." That show, a collaboration with composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie (best known for their "Grey Gardens" score), opens in June at Playwrights Horizons, with luminous Kelli O'Hara in the Julianne Moore role.
When Greenberg and I met last month, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" had just opened, he was in the final stages of fine-tuning "The Assembled Parties," and "Far From Heaven" was still a construction job.
The reviews for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," most taking aim at the production, were fairly savage. (The show, one of the season's biggest casualties, closed early.) "The Assembled Parties" would go on to charm the critics with its verbal élan and ritzy New York style. But Greenberg has long made it his policy to avoid reading the critics during what he called, in a characteristic Jamesian locution, "the strategic period."
"My friends and family have been so well trained that they know I really mean it when I say that I don't care if the review is good, because that can be as dangerous as when it's bad," he said. "It's less demoralizing, but it can be just as confusing. What this does is focus you on the experience you're having as opposed to the response."
Greenberg wasn't simply prattling here for a journalist's tape recorder. There was a searching quality to the way he talked about making "a life in the theater," a philosophical note suggesting active contemplation of an ongoing riddle.
His career has been filled with fabulous highs (a Frank Rich love letter for his first Broadway play "Eastern Standard," the Tony Award for "Take Me Out") and some embarrassing lows (including the Broadway flops "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" and the 2008 revival of "Pal Joey" with his retooled book).
The starriest moment in Greenberg's professional life and the most conspicuous artistic fizzle was undoubtedly Julia Roberts' Broadway debut in "Three Days of Rain" — a Kipling lesson if ever there was one in the wisdom of treating triumph and disaster just the same.
Pegged from his Yale School of Drama days as one of the best and the brightest, Greenberg has had to contend with the burden of unreasonable expectations. He has responded, as an artist only can, by being indissolubly himself. Yet the economics of this are difficult to figure out for a playwright who has avoided teaching and has a bit of a reputation for being a shut-in.
His long-standing relationships with Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory — his bicoastal theatrical homes, if you will — aren't enough, as he candidly put it, "to support a life in New York City." (SCR has been especially good to him: "Our Mother's Brief Affair" was Greenberg's ninth world premiere at the Costa Mesa theater.) Yet to keep himself comfortably housed in a doorman building in Manhattan, Greenberg, 55, must also accept commissions for adaptations, dabble in film and television, and worry — a lot.
"I started in the era when Hollywood reveled in being the most cost-inefficient industry on the planet," he said. "They used to commission a hundred scripts for every one they made. Do you remember the movies that were coming out in the mid-'80s? Every story was a fish-out-of-water story. I was terrible at it because I never know what I'm writing until I write it."
Television, he said, appeals to him more than film because it's closer to the way the theater works. And though he's been "ritually disappointed" in getting his own projects produced, he likes what he sees these days on cable TV. His current obsession: TNT's "Southland."
"The show reminds me of the movies of the '70s that you wouldn't want to eat dinner after because they were so depressing but they were kind of great. There are scenes, like this one about a hooker's retirement party, that are so impressive. They cut off at just the right moment. A second longer and it would have gone bad."
When asked if he hungers for a big TV audience, Greenberg shook his head "No." His witty phrase-making isn't designed for the mass market. But he's drawn to the medium for reasons beyond the paycheck. The challenge of seizing short attention spans appeals to him, but even more he's attracted to the speed of production.