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Glenda Frank

Interview with the playwright: Jeffrey Sweet

Flyovers by Jeffrey Sweet
78th St. Theatre Laboratory (236 W. 78 St., NYC. 212-873-9050)
January 29 throught February 15

By Glenda Frank

The playwright Jeffrey Sweet.

"Flyovers by Jeffrey Sweet" is a 90-minute play that stars Richard Kind as a television film critic who has returned to his Ohio hometown for a high school reunion. Trying to make peace with his past, he reconnects with some former classmates, a bully (Kevin Geer) and a girl he had a crush on (Michele Pawk). The encounters are unsettling for all three; nothing turns out as expected.

The playwright, an attractive, lanky man, an intellectual who has a passion for clever phrases and good performances, can be found at the run almost every night. We chatted briefly about the play and later emailed the interview back and forth.

QUESTION: What inspired the play?
JEFFREY SWEET: Some years back, I ran into a friend on the street. He was covered with cuts and bruises. I asked him, "What happened to you?" He said, "I went to my high school reunion." He told me the story. After sympathizing, I asked if I had his permission to write something based on it. He said fine. What amuses me is the critics who have accused the play of suddenly veering into melodrama, as if this had been manufactured. The "melodrama" is the truth.

QUESTION: Were the character modeled on anyone specific that you'd like to mention?

JS: The only character who was influenced by anybody real was Ted's [the bully’s sick] wife, Lianne. I thought I'd write a part for my girlfriend, Kristine Niven, who's an actress [and Artistic Director of Artistic New Directions], so I wrote to what I believe are her considerable strengths. As it happens, she was cast in the original production in Chicago. She had to drop out because opening night conflicted with her daughter's college graduation in California, and she wasn't going to miss that. One of the nice developments in the New York run is that Donna Bullock, who opened the show and was a splendid Lianne, got a high-paying commercial in New Zealand, and Kristine got to step in for the final four performances and do the part that had been written for her. This is even more impressive given that she was the show's line producer, ran box office and was one of the folks who did the set change.

QUESTION: What's the production history?

JS: The play premiered in Chicago in 1998 under the direction of Dennis Zacek. It starred William Petersen (just before starting CSI) and Amy Morton (pre- "August: Osage County "and Tony nomination) as well as Marc Vann and Lina Reiter. It was greeted mostly with huzzahs and won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new script. In fact, it retired half of Victory Gardens's debt. When Petersen left, Gary Cole took over the part, playing opposite his wife, Teddi Sidall. They were splendid, too. Gary wants to do the play again. It was also recorded as a radio special that was broadcast in Chicago.

QUESTION: I thought the first scene was beautifully conceived and performed. I especially liked Ted (the bully) and Oliver's dynamic, present and past. What's Oliver's motive for visiting the high school bully?

JS: He says it pretty much in the second scene. He's a nice sentimental liberal who hopes that people can indeed improve themselves, and he was hoping to get an apology and also to find confirmation of his desire to believe the best in people by making peace with someone who had been an enemy. Remember, too, what we learn about what happened to him just before he came to the reunion. When you've had your world turned upside down and lost control, you tend to seek out somewhere where the people don't know your news and you can pretend to be happy and on top of things. So, yes, he's looking for people to be nice to him because of his status as second-tier TV personality. It's been my experience, that celebrities -- even on his level -- find themselves acting as sort of floating hosts wherever they go. So he's in the odd situation of acting like a gracious host on Ted's deck.

QUESTION: I don't get Iris. She seems coarse and ordinary. What am I missing?

JS: That she finds a line she can't cross in the second scenes. Turns out that she has a basic decency she didn't know she had. She's the character who travels the greatest distance. She turns on a friend because she can't be party to what he's doing, and it's likely she'll pay for that by being isolated in her community for a time. A pretty gutsy thing to do, actually. Remember, too, that she's the one who's optimistic about the plant being re-opened. Realize, also, that Oliver -- with all of his talk about the potential she had in high school -- is unaware how deeply he's hurting her by saying this stuff. The potential he speaks of is in the past tense. The vision from the prom he remembers so vividly is now a middle-aged woman with a daughter who's a single parent scraping by in a dying town on a skimpy salary as a part-time waitress. Oliver may have stars in his eyes, but all he's done is remind her how crappy her life has turned out. It's part of his obliviousness, and it's why she decides to go through with the plan. I don't think she's cynical, and I don't think she's at all sluggish mentally. She has a pretty nimble wit given the limited world in which she's grown up. Her riff on her father's unusual domestic arrangement is pretty funny and well-observed after all.

QUESTION: We've all felt ourselves abused in school or at a job, so we can all related to Oliver. But few of us want to keep being abused, yet he just takes it. Am I seeing this from the wrong?

JS: Well, he does nearly walk out, but is stopped when Lianne (the bully’s wife) shows up. But he's trying to make it easy for Ted to articulate the apology that Oliver thinks Ted really wants to make. He thinks that Ted has to work his way through his machismo crap and find a way to apologize without saving face. Oliver isn't "taking it" so much as he's trying to give Ted room to say what Oliver thinks Ted wants to say.

QUESTION: How do you want the audience to respond to Oliver at the end?

JS: The guy is confused and in pain, and he's so unmoored he's made a strange proposal to Iris. I hope the audience feels for him and recognizes that much of what has seemed to be bewildering behavior is rooted in the loss and disorientation he's feeling. I remember seeing Richard Dreyfuss on a talk show in the middle of his divorce. He spoke for the first 45 minutes about politics and history, and then, with kind of a cheerful nutty smile on his face, told the shocked host, "I don't know who I am. You're talking right now to a guy who doesn't know who he is. I don't recognize what's happened to my life." It was a terrifying and manic moment. Though Oliver isn't based on Dreyfuss, that moment of pain stayed with me and informed Oliver's situation.

QUESTION: Where is the catharsis in the play?

JS: I don't consciously write to achieve catharsis. I hope, though, the audience feels the ground shift a little when Iris turns out to be a more principled person than she thought she was. And I hope there's that point of emotional contact with Oliver at the end as he weeps in Iris's arms.

QUESTION: What play are you looking forward to bringing to NY? What plays or projects are you working on now?

JS: Premiering a new play called "Class Dismissed" at the Victory Gardens Theatre in March. It's about some 60s political types who put together an ad hoc household in Vermont and how they are part of the time and how they are treated by those times.

The New Federal Theatre is also planning to put up "Court-Martial At Fort Devens" in the fall, the historical play I wrote about the black private who got into a fight with a white colonel outside of Boston in 1945. True story that nobody knows about. (It and "Stay Till Morning" are both in the anthology, "The Value Of Names And Other Plays.")

I'm looking to get involved in a musical I can commit to. Also kicking around a play set among Senators in the 1950s and 60s and a contemporary play set in Atlanta about a young man trying to make peace with the family that had cast him out when he was a kid., So, you know -- a full plate.

By the way, I also wrote a play about Iris’s father and his friends. It's called "Stay Till Morning." Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker want to do it. Marshall A. Mason wants to direct it. Kevin Geer [who turned in a powerful, charismatic performance as Ted in "Flyovers"] would age himself a little and play Iris's father.

JEFFREY SWEET is also the author of "Something Wonderful Right Away," an oral history of Chicago’s The Second City troupe, "The Dramatists’ Toolkit" And "Solving Your Script," two guides to dramatic writing. His most produced play is "The Value of Names," about a director who named names to HUAC, a blacklisted father, and his daughter who must make an important career decision. His work in musical theatre includes writing the book of a musical version of Murray Schisgal’s "Luv." Under the title "Love," it won an Outer Critics Circle prize for best book and best score (by Howard Marren; lyrics by Susan Birkenhead). With Melissa Manchester, he wrote the musical "I Sent a Letter to My Love," based on the novel by Bernice Rubens. His plays have won the Jefferson Award (Chicago), two American Theatre Critics Association playwriting awards, a "Best Plays" citation, and a Kennedy Center-American Express honor.


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