When I was twenty-six years old, on the back staircase at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, I bumped into a seventy-year-old playwright I had read and revered in graduate school. I didn’t recognize him, I only knew him through his work, but when we were introduced I was starstruck and he noticed and I noticed that he liked it. We chatted briefly, he was told I was also a playwright – a generous term for where I was in my career – and he asked to read some work. A week later I had sent him a play and he had called and suggested we have coffee.
Our coffee date could not have started better. He began by telling me that he had been mentored by Samuel Beckett. Beckett, he pointed out, had been mentored by Ionesco. The implication hung in the air: at this very coffee shop, in this very moment in time, there was every possibility that a direct line of mentorship and genius was being drawn from Ionesco, to Beckett, to him, to me. It was one of those moments – impossible and yet inevitable. I was finally being seen for what I was: a genius, the great new voice of the theater, a playwright that would survive, nay define, the age. Only one thing worried me – the one thing that plays at the back of most young women’s minds when they meet old men for coffee. Was this really about work? Or was it about using work as a front to explore the inevitable sexual chemistry that occurs when girls in their twenties and men in their seventies meet?
The minute I wondered if the great playwright had a sexual agenda, I rejected the thought. He was married. He was nearly three times my age. And this is surely not what Beckett asked of him, or indeed Ionesco of Beckett. But the man was also leaning forward in his chair, his hand on my knee and sometimes my arm. Just to make sure there could be no confusion as he guided us through our conversation on Life and Art, I mentioned I had a girlfriend.
The effect was instantaneous. The playwright sat back in his chair. His eyes ceased to sparkle. He studied with me disappointment. With brief, incisive questioning, he confirmed my sexuality as homo. I never forgot the next words out of his mouth. “Well,” he said. “Just don’t write about it.”
Somehow, I had not put the playwright off me entirely. He insisted on walking me to the subway and I found myself submitting to a long, dry kiss on the lips as he dropped me off. A few weeks later he telephoned me to tell me about a family crisis he was going through and suggested we have another coffee. I politely, apologetically declined. He said he thought he might be in love with me. I said I had to go.
As happens too often, another hero met, another hero tarnished. The great old man, who had been mentored by Beckett, seemed to me now sad and squalid. I never thought of him again without the same shiver I felt when he held my head in place with surprising strength as he kissed me. And yet. And yet. And yet. I took his advice. “Just don’t write about it.” I never did. I believed him. He was living proof. Lesbianism made people sit back and their chairs and frown. It was not beautiful. It was off-putting and unconvincing. Not a useful subject matter if one wished to be worthy of Beckett and Ionesco, if one dreaded rejection.
A little over ten years later, I did write about “it” and that play became The Mystery of Love & Sex. This was not a conscious decision. My intention, as always, was to write another play. I had no plans for subject matter. I never do when I begin. As my play stormed out of me, unstoppable and violent, I was horrified. The experience was deeply unpleasant, emotionally. I was the most embarrassing of writers in the café where I worked: tears streamed down my face as I stabbed out the dialogue on my keyboard. I looked up once, just in time to see a nearby guy whisper amusedly to a girl: “Whoa, she’s really into it.”
Not only was I going through the torture of the writing. I was going through the torture of writing something I was convinced was unproduceable. I believed this absolutely, that is how thoroughly I had absorbed homophobic wisdom about what is and isn’t acceptable material for a play. I persevered with the script only because it was obvious to me that the emotions in the play needed to be exorcised from my body. When the play was finished, I could trash it, and move on with my life.
That is what I told myself until I typed “the end.”
When I was thirty-eight years old, I bumped into a brilliant director and friend of mine at a wedding. He asked what I was working on. I said I had just finished a play. He asked to read it. Two days later, he wrote me an email: “Let’s do it.” A month later, Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center, had offered to produce the play with no ifs and buts. No workshop, no reading. Months later Tony Shaloub and Diane Lane had signed on. I have never been moved to production so quickly. I have never received the support of such big names before. I was astonished. I was overwhelmed. I was terrified. I was thrilled.
Until The Mystery of Love & Sex I had translated certain real-life homosexual experiences into heterosexual ones in the same way, I told myself, that many a great playwright had done before me in order to make the work more palatable and more universal. Finally without this mask, this safety net, watching Mystery go before its New York audiences made me feel almost intolerably exposed. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience much. But as audiences responded, as I received email after email telling me that I has told a story that was personal to so many other people and yet has never been told, my own sense of vulnerability began to mellow. I started to think again about that encounter with the great playwright from years before. I thought about those little moments that have a disproportionate effect on us, until years later, after we have made our peace with our life and limitations, time stirs up new circumstances and we find ourselves overwhelmed, knocked flat and forced to start again.
Photo: Diane Lane, standing, and Gayle Rankin in The Mystery of Love & Sex. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.