Lanford Wilson works hard. The first time we meet, the playwright is taking a coffee break from writing. Unshaven, hyper, studiedly haggard — cheerfully haggard — he jangles down the hallway at the Circle Repertory Company, the off-Broadway theater he helped found in 1969, and pops into the green room, where actors congregate while waiting for rehearsals or classes or auditions to begin. He jokes with a couple of actors, greets a visitor, shakes some Cremora into his styrofoam cup and then heads back to his desk. Not a desk, actually — it’s sort of a bare place where he’s shoved aside some scripts and things on a long table in the small, cluttered office he shares with two women who are administrators for Circle Rep. “This is my spot,” he says, slapping the surface in front of his paper-loaded typewriter. Here in the middle of ringing telephones, shuffling papers and human traffic is where Wilson performs what back in his native midwestern farm country might be called his “writing chores.”
At forty-five, Landford Wilson has written something like three dozen plays. They range from a monologue about a man who comes home to an empty house, to a thirty-four-character drama about junkies and streetwalkers, to a trilogy spanning five generations of an American family. His first play, a one-act called Home Free, about an incestuous young brother and sister, opened in Greenwich Village in 1964 at the minuscule Caffe Cino, the legendary, now nonexistent coffeehouse. His latest, the opus he’s struggling to finish amid the bustle of Circle Rep’s business as usual, was scheduled to premiere at the New World Festival in Miami last month. Set in a Catholic mission in New Mexico where an art history professor, a professional tennis player and sundry other travelers wait out a brush with nuclear disaster, this new play is one of three commissioned for the festival in Florida; the other playwrights offering new works are Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. If Lanford Wilson hasn’t already established himself as their heir, this rendezvous in the Everglades ought to do the trick.
If he gets the damn thing done. Playwrights aren’t accustomed to having deadlines, and now, three months before the opening, the play is only half-finished. “It’s interesting how it came about,” says Wilson. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I was starting to panic.” He tilts back in his chair and props a Pro-Ked up on his, ah, spot. Lean and boyish, he’s dressed in a blue work shirt, a green sweater and jeans, and his dull-brown hair, streaked with steely silver, tends to flop down over his forehead. “I have a new apartment,” he says, “and I went down the block to check out the bars in the neighborhood. I went into one, nothing happening, and I saw behind the bar they had these two little post cards of barren, why-would-anyone-want-to-take-a-picture-of-that landscape. I thought — New Mexico, Colorado, Utah — the bartender is obviously on vacation and sent back these post cards.
“Suddenly, I saw the inside of this mission and these people who had been detained. A woman throwing her purse down on a bench and saying, ‘Is this the pits?’ and this other guy going ‘Ohhhhh, rah-thah….’ It was very strange to get a flash like that, and it was so startling I went with it. Pretty soon, all six characters came to me, all of them in various states of crisis. I don’t know how it all ends; I’m letting them tell me. It’s wonderful to write like that, just free-fall.”
Even half done, the play seems to touch on several of the hottest topics of the day: religion, tennis, nuclear power. Is this intentional?
Wilson shrugs. “I write what’s in the air.”
More than most of his peers, Lanford Wilson has his ear cocked to the voice of the American people. As a writer, he doesn’t have the mad, myth-making magic of Sam Shepard or the penetrating zaniness of John Guare. But Wilson — born and bred among Ozark hillbillies, schooled in San Diego and Chicago, irresistibly drawn to the bright lights of New York — somehow manages to straddle middle America and midtown Manhattan, small-town simplicity and big-city sophistication, working-class virtues and idle-rich vices, the far-out and the far right.
Mr. Middle-of-the-Road? Maybe. You could also call him Mr. Zeitgeist. At a time when the family as an institution is under attack in life and fiction, Wilson’s plays often portray people finding ways to regroup according to need rather than habit: Wilson focuses on preserving — conserving — what’s good about the past for use in the future. In the regional-theater environment of Circle Rep, Wilson has had the freedom to refine a style of playwriting sometimes labeled “lyric realism.”
“It’s not something Lanford invented, but it is something he happens to do awfully well,” says Marshall Mason, the Texas-born artistic director of Circle Rep. “It’s a kind of realism that I feel is the voice of the native American theater, but it is realism that is elevated in its language. It takes the language people speak and makes it more musical.”