A New, Young Playwright Risks Success for His Art

updated 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Bourgeois success is not terribly satisfying," Richard Greenberg says. "It isn't, it just isn't, it really isn't. I think everyone discovers that eventually." Greenberg, 30, feels strongly about that—so strongly, in fact, that he has written a play about it. His comedy, Eastern Standard, which recently moved to Broadway after six sold-out weeks off-Broadway, clocks a group of thirty something New York City professionals as they move toward a similar conclusion. Becoming disillusioned with their selfish, career-driven lives, the "y" persons, in an ill-conceived attempt at redemption, invite a homeless woman to share their summer beach house. But they soon chafe under the responsibility they've taken on, and the woman, wounded, departs. The play, which also manages to address AIDS and insider-trading scandals, has struck a responsive chord in critics as well as audiences. "For anyone who has been waiting for a play that tells what it is like to be more or less young and more or less well-intentioned in a frightening city at this moment in this time zone," wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, "Eastern Standard at long last is it."

All of which, in a delicious irony, has created a big problem for Greenberg. Eastern Standard—the first of his plays to reach Broadway and the first, he says, that will turn a profit—is hurtling him inexorably toward...bourgeois success. Which is why, instead of elated, he is feeling a bit tense of late. He is uncomfortable with publicity. "I'm so sick of talking about myself," he says. "I'd rather talk about, like, Armenia." He doesn't enjoy socializing. ("I have to be dragged to parties on a leash. Although, at the opening night party for Eastern Standard, I did have something akin to a good time.") He has little interest in wealth. ("I don't like a lot of possessions, because you have to take care of them.") And he worries that his play, which he had hoped might prompt people to take stock of their lives, will merely entertain them instead.

But Greenberg isn't sorry he wrote Eastern Standard. His earlier plays often "took place in worlds that were artificial in some way," he says. It was time to look at the real one. "I was getting very concerned about what was going on in the world, in a way that was sort of new, and I was seeing that people around me who were basically my age were too." The play's characters—young people weary of the pursuit of cash but fond of their creature comforts; longing to help the disenfranchised but unsure how to proceed—embody "the exact moral equation of most of the people I know," Greenberg says. Despite his current qualms, "I very much believe in this play."

The unique blend of self-confidence and angst that is Richard Greenberg developed in middle-class East Meadow, New York. His father, Leon, was an executive with Century Theatres, his mother, Shirley, a housewife and "perpetual student." Richard, their younger son, began writing at age 9 and kept it up "because people were always telling me I did it well." His parents hoped he would make it his career, but Greenberg longed to act. ("Actually, I hated acting," he says, "but I felt driven to it, somehow.") He dabbled in both as an undergrad at Princeton, and after his senior thesis, a 430-page novel he describes as "awful—sort of baby Balzac," received an A from Joyce Carol Oates, he headed for a graduate program in English at Harvard. A year later he had chucked his Ph.D. plans and his lingering acting dreams. On the strength of Sweeter Music, a play he wrote "for fun, because novels were hard," he gained admission to the Yale School of Drama. Without fully intending it, Greenberg had become a playwright.

Two of the plays he wrote while at Yale (Life Under Water and The Bloodletters) were staged by New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre while he was still a student. The Bloodletters—about "an adolescent with an ineradicable stench; he might as well have worn a traffic sign that said METAPHOR," Greenberg says—won an award in 1985. "It was all very serendipitous," says Greenberg, who moved to New York after he graduated in 1985 and, living frugally on money he made doing TV-and film-script work, continued to write plays. Eastern Standard was written in just one month in 1987.

These days, during those rare moments when he isn't writing or giving interviews, Greenberg is trying, with limited effectiveness, to cope with his success. "I never relax," he says. "I do things to relax and end up getting more tense." His apartment, a tiny sublet he calls "a hall with a bed," is not much of a refuge, and he has no romantic attachments. ("Oh, please," he says. "I'm too crazed right now.") Like his Eastern Standard alter egos, he would like to help society's unfortunates, but he worries about his motives. "I don't want to make token gestures just to appease myself," he says. "I want to make sure it's something really helpful." Recently, though he rarely drinks, he has discovered the therapeutic value of the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer for serenity. "It helps," he says, "in a mantralike way."

Sometimes, Greenberg admits, he dreams of "moving to Seattle and serving caffelatte at a café on Queen Anne Avenue." He won't do it, of course. He will keep at his plays, because writing them is the part he really likes. His current project, for example, is cheering him up no end. "I'm very happy," he says, "because I don't think there's any way at all it could possibly go to Broadway."

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