May 27, 2004
Writing Well Is the ‘Best Revenge’
It's 7 p.m. on a recent Monday at Samuel French book store in Studio City, and Stephen Fife is hanging out, waiting for more people to show up for a reading of his new memoir, "Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life (And Has Been Killing Me Ever Since)."
The person responsible for promoting such events is abroad, he says, creating a publicity glitch that's resulted in, well, hardly anyone turning out to the reading, save for eight friends and fans. It's a fitting snafu, given that Fife's hilariously caustic memoir covers everything that can go wrong with anything to do with the theater -- and why he perseveres.
"Revenge" revolves around a 1998 staging of his acclaimed adaptation of Sholem Asch's Yiddish classic, "God of Vengeance," directed by his idol, the legendary Joseph Chaikin. The book recounts Fife's misadventures during that Atlanta production -- such as his frantic attempts to find free places to crash -- between astute insights into the play, the American theater and his colorful past.
Fife, 51, describes growing up an "upper-West-Side-private-school Jew," the proverbial "black sheep" of his privileged family. He recalls earning good reviews and no money for plays such as his Pinteresque Holocaust saga, "Mickey's Home"; suffering criticism while adapting "Vengeance" for Manhattan's Jewish Repertory Theater in 1992 and his unabashed envy of successful playwrights. (During the reading, he asks at least two people if they've read Donald Margulies' adaptation of "Vengeance," which -- as he gleefully notes in his memoir -- Chaikin disliked.)
In an era in which showbusiness autobiographies often present the author as hero (think Neil Simon's "Rewrites"), Fife "carves out a niche for the less-than-gorgeous dramatists of the world," according to American Theatre magazine. "[He] is unafraid to tell the unattractive truth from the worm's eye view, to reveal his own schadenfreude, to swipe at colleagues for real and imagined slights."
"Fife offers a dirty-thoughts-and-all self-portrait in extreme close-up, in the model of early Philip Roth," another publication, Creative Loafing, said.
Looking artsily rumpled in black jeans and a T-shirt at the reading, the playwright comes off more like an affable, self-deprecating cynic; he smiles politely when a woman gushes, "You have wonderful, self-effacing humor, kind of Larry David-ish."
Fife is less prickly than David, but he does take umbrage with American Theatre's claim that his "Revenge" digs at people to get even.
He wrote the book for different reasons, he says during an interview in his sunny, cluttered Santa Monica apartment. He got the idea back in 1998 when, while reeling from a difficult divorce, he unexpectedly realized his 18-year-old dream of working with Chaikin.
"I had in mind a memoir that would deal with the actual experience of theater and would convey a visceral sense of dedicating yourself to an art form you love, regardless of whether you are successful," he says.
Fife began scribbling notes during rehearsals of Asch's 1905 drama, about a shtetl pimp who raises his daughter "purely" upstairs while getting rich off the brothel below. The inevitable production problems ensued: Fife says he was appalled, for example, when a promotional poster depicted a drawing of a naked woman dangling from a Star of David (to add insult to injury, the woman didn't even look Jewish). Then, a community leader denounced the play as "an attack on Jewish businessmen" and the production hung in the balance until the leader attended a rehearsal and approved the show, Fife says.
Behind the scenes, the playwright continued to fight with his girlfriend, who had helped him find a place to stay in Atlanta but was chagrined when he refused to buy his host a thank-you gift.
OK, so he may have burned some bridges in Atlanta, and "Revenge's" tell-all stories aren't pretty, but then again, "Blood has to be spilled for comedy to be truly funny," he says.
"People like to gloss over the nastier sides of things," he adds. "But I wanted to present the truth about the journey of the playwright, warts and all."
He doesn't spare himself: "I think I come across as a pathetic character, for the most part," he says. "I show my professional insecurities and my rocky history in my relationships, including a number of e-mails that were quite unflattering, in which my girlfriend speaks of me as a 'constantly rebelling little boy.'"
The playwright appears to have made progress, since he currently shares his apartment with said girlfriend, now his "life partner," and their 5-year-old daughter. He's also become the literary director of a new Los Angeles area theater, Pacific Stages, whose debut production is his own black comedy about dating, "This is Not What I Ordered." Thus far the production has had at least one crisis, a problem with an actor who, in Fife's words, was "just mugging like crazy."
So the theater is continuing to save his life, and to kill him.
"I have a play opening this week," as he told participants at his reading. "So obviously, I've learned nothing."
"This is Not What I Ordered" runs May 28-June 27 at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets, $20, call (323) 655-TKTS. "Revenge" readings are scheduled for June 6 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, (310) 822-8392; June 9 at Book Soup in West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and June 12 at Borders Books and Music in Hollywood, (310) 659-4045.
Excerpt from Stephen Fife's "Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since":
Not that it was a pleasant thing to admit, but there comes a point when many of us stop being good sports and start wishing some ill-will on our more favored peers, no matter how talented they are. And Donald Margulies was a talented playwright, whose play "Sight Unseen" had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he had been dubbed the official "Jewish-American Playwright" in some press-sanctioned ceremony to which (as usual) I had not been invited. My own Jewish play "Mickey's Home" had been beaten out several times by his plays, in one case actually getting knocked off a theater's roster when a new play of his suddenly became available. (That theater's artistic director, the very picture of WASP gentility, had actually said to me: "Well, you couldn't expect us to do two Jewish plays in one season, could you? We have subscribers.")
But now Margulies had crossed the line, he had climbed into my wheelhouse and made it personal. Five years after my version of "God of Vengeance" had been produced at Playhouse 91 on New York's upper East Side -- receiving 17 rave reviews and selling out the last few weeks, despite losing our big-name star during rehearsal -- I received a call from a literary associate at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, offering me 30 pieces of silver (alright, 20), to be on a panel discussing a production of The Donald Margulies version of "God of Vengeance."
I had put down the receiver and silently screamed at the playwright's decibel (which not even dogs can hear) and then phoned a friend of mine who worked at Long Wharf. She had smuggled out a script, meeting me in the parking lot of a large shopping center, where I had to read the 200-plus page script on the spot, as if I was Julius Rosenberg memorizing state secrets. In the end, that production was canceled (another 20 pieces of silver down the drain), but his version was out there, hanging over my head. So what if it had 25 characters and included a full klezmer concert? I mean, he was Donald Margulies, the darling of regional theater, the state-sanctioned "Jewish American Playwright" -- so what chance did my script have, right? Except Joe Chaikin liked my version better. Yeah. He loved my version, and he was going to direct it. The Joe Chaikin.