"This year I have suddenly decided there is virtue in being an idler and a loafer," said Murray Schisgal, 55, the playwright, whose distinctly doleful mien indicated he was not entirely committed to his decision. Indeed, a few minutes later he launched into a defense of workaholics, himself among them.
"It's become very fashionable to put down the urban striver," he said with some vehemence. "I don't see anything really wrong with wanting to break your heart to achieve something . . . To be exhausted is a value. I hate to sleep unless I am exhausted. You feel somehow you've cheated yourself if you go to bed without being exhausted."
Currently Schisgal is working on his latest play, "Twice Around the Park," which opens tonight at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, starring Schisgal's old friends Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. Although they and he had great success with his earlier plays, notably "Luv," which ran for two years on Broadway starting in 1964, they haven't collaborated for 15 years.
"Twice Around the Park" is really two one-act plays linked thematically and set, as are many Schisgal works, in New York City. "I have to say I was born and raised in New York, and my characters as a general rule sound like New Yorkers in constant competition with the noise of the city," he said, although he is a "devoted eavesdropper" who likes nothing better than to go to some other part of the country, for example Kansas City, and listen to people talk. "The definition of a playwright is one who is obsessed with spoken language," he said. "I take trips just to hang out. Shopping malls are good places, and department stores."
Schisgal, who was a lawyer in an earlier life, is an addicted writer. He usually works on several things at the same time, and has only recently--in his newly discovered appreciation of laziness--stopped working seven days a week. "I am a compulsive writer." Actually, he said, writing is just the catalyst, the outlet for a highly developed imagination that has to have somewhere to go. "I accept the fact that I need another reality to exist.
"The real truth is that most creativity is the result of boredom. All activities other than writing bore the hell out of me. I haven't read in years and years with any enjoyment. I can't fix a shelf well or a car, I make a mess of it . . . I go to the theater frequently, but I usually don't stay long. I love the excitement of what happens when a play begins; everyone's ready to fall in love. But it's very easy for me to be very very critical of other people's work."
Schisgal's characters are often, as he said, New Yorkers, neurotic and funny--although sometimes Schisgal's humor is so far out it is hard to grab on to. This is a man who wrote a play about herpes, (which has not been produced), for example, not realizing at the time that it was a rather serious disease. He has another called "The Flatulist," in which a young man develops a vaudeville act around his ability to control his farts. "An American Millionaire" was a comedy about a political revolutionary kidnaping a young girl. Two weeks into rehearsals Patty Hearst's plight made the jokes unfunny; at least the critics thought so.
The characters in "Twice Around the Park" are, in one act, a lady cop and an unemployed actor, and in the second play, a married couple seeking counseling from a tape recording. The play has been done on Long Island and in Syracuse, with revisions each time, and will tour after its six-week run here prior to a projected Broadway opening in early November.
Having endured the vicissitudes of the theater for more than 20 years and acknowledging his addiction to them, Schisgal said that his attitude toward his own work has changed. He no longer worries about whether or not his plays are perceived as having great depth, but pursues instead the fleeting moment of connection between audience and performers.
"The business of a playwright is to hold an audience by its lapels and not lose its attention," he said. "I am interested in having a life take place on stage. That theatrical moment where I feel a sense of relationship between the actor and the audience, that's all I want."
He wrote a novel that was published in 1980, "Days and Nights of a French Horn Player," a process that he found "lonely" compared to the collaborative work of the theater. Recently he worked on the screenplay for the movie "Tootsie," in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who can only get parts as a woman, an experience he enjoyed even though there were six other writers after him. He is specifically uninterested in talking about the health of the business, much as he declines to see anything profound in his plays.
"I don't indulge myself in thinking about the state of theater. I don't have any interest in knowing. I am more interested in enjoying what I do."