Although Lyle Kessler has been writing plays for the past 35 years, he is still best known for his early unconventional family play, Orphans, which has been produced around the world and was made into a 1987 feature film that starred Albert Finney.
But Kessler has a new play that he feels can eclipse Orphans, another offbeat family drama called House on Fire, developed by Palm Beach Dramaworks, which gives it a world premiere this Friday evening.
“Every play I write begins with people in conflict,” notes Kessler. “This one began with the first scene — two brothers in conflict with their dead father in the living room.” Beyond that, he says, “I had no idea where it was going, I had no idea who else was going to be in it.”
As the characters and the plot emerged, Kessler staged an early reading at New York’s Actor’s Studio, where he runs the playwright director’s unit. “Everybody loved it so. They were laughing so much,” he recalls. “(Studio co-president) Ellen Burstyn said, ‘Go and finish the play,’ so that gave me the impetus to do so.”
Kessler concedes that he was unfamiliar with Palm Beach Dramaworks, but two year ago, his agent submitted House on Fire to the West Palm Beach company’s Dramaworkshop, dedicated to identifying and developing new stage scripts.
After a blind submission process, “so nobody knows who wrote the play. We want the strength of the play to be what sells the piece,” says Dramaworks artistic director Bill Hayes, several hundred scripts were winnowed down to 10. “‘House on Fire’ quickly emerged at the top, In fact, I was getting pressure from all the evaluating artists telling me I had to commit to producing it right there on the spot, they felt so strongly about it. And here we are today.”
From an early point in the play’s development, Hayes knew that he wanted to direct the world premiere. “I think I understood the play. I understood what the playwright was going for, the potential in it,” he says. “For me, it’s a play about our inherent and inevitable need for family validation, for love, for acceptance, whether it be with siblings or parents. You can’t escape it. That seems universal to me.
“I knew it would be difficult to cast it, but I knew (Lyle) attracted the caliber of actors that could pull it off. The beauty of all his characters that he creates — certainly the ones that I’ve been introduced to — is they all have these hardened, edgy, thorny exteriors, but there is vulnerability in all of them. There’s a soft spot in all of them,” says Hayes. “I knew that there were traps for the actors – if someone playing the Old Man or playing (his sons) Noah or Colman could alienate an audience – but, for example, casting somebody like a Rob Donohoe [Tru, The Little Foxes] as the father, he is going to find layers in there and is going to make him quirky and is going to bring depth to him.
“Because you’re dealing with new work, you have to have a more collaborative process than I would even normally have,” Hayes emphasizes, “because you have to be able to explore what the scene is and, almost as importantly, what the scene can be. So you need to have a great relationship with your artists, knowing that they bring a wide range and depth, but also an intellectual process and a collaborative process.”
Kessler has been closely involved with casting and with rehearsals, and he enthusiastically endorses the results. “If an actor doesn’t have the essence of the role, the whole production can be ruined. But I’ve never had a group of actors who are so right for the roles from the get-go,” says the playwright. “Here and there, adjustments have to be made, but the play is there because of what Bill is doing with it is right in the ballpark of where it needs to go. It’s been a great, great experience.”
Perhaps because his writing is so vivid, Kessler is often asked if his characters are based on his own family members. “Most of my plays have no basis in reality, in my family,” he says. “When I did ‘Orphans,’ people wanted to know if I had a brother and if I locked him in a closet. But no, ‘Orphans’ was about disparate elements, emotional elements, within myself that were unresolved and I was trying to resolve it with this play and these characters.
“A lot of my plays have elements of my father in them, because he was a marginalized character and charismatic and a bit of an exhibitionist. So that element is there, but it’s not anything about our reality as a family.”
Asked what theatergoers should know about House on Fire in advance, Kessler says without hesitation, “That it’s a comedy. It’s a dramatic comedy of people on the edge, and it’s funny and it’s warm and it has human emotions. It’s a little scary but it’s also redemptive. These characters are rooted in reality, but this play – like so many of my plays – is mythical. They’re parables really. They’re kind of magical realism.”
Compared to his other works, Kessler says of House on Fire, “I think it has more fantasy elements in it. And it may have more humor than some of the other plays. Audiences to this play are going to go on a journey. They’re not going to know where they’re going or how it’s going to end. It’s really an adventure. A lot of my plays are that way, but this one even more so. It’s really an emotional journey.”
And perhaps this Palm Beach Dramaworks production has a journey in its future. Asked about his expectations for it, Kessler is anything but reticent. “That we take the play with Bill and this cast and open it in New York. First off-Broadway, move it to Broadway, and then make a film of it.”
Could be. It has happened for Kessler before.
HOUSE ON FIRE, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Dec. 7 – 30. $75. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.