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WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008

As far as Craig Lucas is concerned, the world is headed straight for the apocalypse.

“There’s this thing we’re living with now,” he says, sitting in his house in upstate New York, “which is that we can actually completely destroy ourselves. We’re very close.” The Bush administration, he says, “has shredded the Constitution” and led us into Iraq to fight a war without purpose.

This story first appeared in the September 29, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The media is now owned by “three corporations,” and has more interest in “Britney Spears’ pouter, Michael Phelps’ abs, John Edwards’ haircut and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits” than anything substantive.

Even The New York Times editorial page has let us down, he says, pointing not just to conservatives like Bill Kristol and David Brooks, but also to Maureen Dowd, whom he calls a “circus stunt performer who’s interested only in who’s winning and losing.”

Of course Lucas is going to be angry about the Republican Party and the war in Iraq. Naturally he’s going to think the press has let us down. He’s a gay playwright and screenwriter from liberal New York who has spent the last 25 years writing about the AIDS crisis and homophobia, first in the theater and then in Hollywood, penning scripts for films like Longtime Companion (1990) and The Dying Gaul (2005), which he also directed.

What’s more remarkable is that the play he’s just written, Prayer for My Enemy, opening December 9 at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, tells the story of a Marine headed for combat in Iraq, and does so with almost no air of judgment at all.

Thank Chekhov. “I did a translation of Three Sisters a couple of years ago and then Uncle Vanya,” he explains. “I’ve since done Brecht’s Galileo and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. But the Chekhov really affected me because he achieves so much by simply leaving out the thing you don’t need and sticking to that which may be observed, dispensing with a lot of what we think of as plot. I found it revelatory.”

So he put the technique to use with a story about two childhood friends who reconnect on the eve of one’s first tour of Iraq. Neither of the young men identify as gay, but neither is entirely straight. The father of the man headed for Iraq is a recovering alcoholic and has something resembling Tourette’s syndrome. There is much conflict, but nobody really knows how to communicate.

Which Lucas can relate to, even if the story line of the play bares little resemblance to his own biographical particulars. Born in Atlanta in 1951, he was the child of a teenage pregnancy who was abandoned by his birth parents. At five months, he was adopted by a couple in Pennsylvania. His adoptive father worked as an FBI agent for the first part of his career, then went to work for several midsize corporations in personnel. His mom worked in a cheese shop and painted as a hobby.

“She adored me. She gave me the sense of mattering, and she gave me the confidence to be a writer,” Lucas says. But she also drank, and when she did, she got into bed with her son. “I don’t know now after some further investigation how much was real and how much I imagined,” Lucas says.

He and his father never discussed the matter until Lucas confronted him about it a few years ago, shortly before his father’s death. “His response was something like, ‘Do you want another beer?’” Lucas says. “He was just a quiet guy. He couldn’t discuss his emotions.”

At 18, Lucas enrolled at Boston University, where he studied with the poet Anne Sexton. “She was the one who told me to skip playwriting school and head to New York,” he says.

So he did, initially working as an actor on Broadway and then as a playwright. First came Reckless and Blue Window, then Prelude to a Kiss, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 and developed into a film.

A kind of Freaky Friday for the theater set, the play told the story of a woman who exchanges a kiss with a dying old man at her wedding and winds up trading bodies with him. During the couple’s honeymoon, the groom realizes his wife’s soul has left her body, and that to get her back, he must find the old man and learn to fall in love with him, despite his looking nothing like his wife.

It was a wacky story, but it worked on a number of levels: First, it raised the question of what is love without the physical. Second, while the play seemed to literally be about a man trying to save his wife, it also resonated with gay men who at the time were watching AIDS turn their lovers from objects of physical perfection into decaying and dying people.

Lucas’ own boyfriend died in 1995, a few years after the release of the film. So did countless friends. To this day, he can’t explain why he remains uninfected: “I had sex with 1,200 people and I’m HIV negative. I’m the luckiest person who ever lived.”

Unfortunately, gratitude is never absolute—particularly when you’ve survived something that’s killed so many people you know. As Lucas puts it, “Yeats said the greatest surprise in any man’s life is his old age. I didn’t think I would be lucky enough to have an old age. I would not, for any amount of money, want to be in my teens, 20s or 30s. They were horrible. They were hard, they were confusing, and everybody behaved miserably, most especially me; 57 is great. I’m loving being alive, I love my work, I love the way it turns green here every single year. But the way I have always related to the world is through touch and love and being alive with another human being, and the great difficulty for me now is that I’m doing it single….And I’m invisible.”

It’s as if growing up and getting older for a playwright is nothing so much as coming to the realization that life isn’t going to be a Shakespearean historical play or a Tennessee Williams melodrama, but instead something quieter, something more Chekhovian.

And the quiet resignation that he feels about his sexuality seems to have impacted his playwriting, which has become more subtle, more about anxiety and loneliness than drama and pageantry. “One of the things that’s moving about Uncle Vanya is that nothing really changes,” Lucas says. “And it’s beautiful. It’s sort of what one sees up here: people enduring. I’ve tried different things [in my plays] over the years—absurdity and playfulness and some of the conventions of revenge tragedy. But I wanted to set aside those things this time. They feel childish to me now.”

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