I brought in David Williamson’s play, MONEY & FRIENDS to Rastar and it has its U.S. Premier on Thursday. He is Sean Mitchell’s interview with David for the Los Angeles Times.
The case could be made that David Williamson is the least known major playwright in the English-speaking world, and just why this is so would have a lot to do with chance, fashion and the geographical circumstance that he lives in and writes about Australia. His name is not quite so unfamiliar in London, where he has had some critical success through the years. But, up to now, Williamson’s 16 full-length plays–many of them superior, dark comedies of manners–have had only sporadic productions in the United States.
If he is known in America, it is largely to that cult of the film-cultured who can identify the writers of movies and would be able to place him as a screenwriter connected to such Australian films as “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Gallipoli,” “Phar Lap” and “Traveling North.” But screenwriting, for him, is a second career.
Possibly this relative anonymity in America will not be quite the same after Thursday, when his 17th play, “Money and Friends,” opens at the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood, in a production directed by Michael Blakemore that is aimed at Broadway. The play stars Michael Gross and Linda Thorson, but it is really an ensemble piece, set in a summer beach house community south of Sydney, where an assortment of selfish, well-to-do Aussies reveal themselves to be less than magnanimous when one of their own is threatened by financial ruin.
“Something about the dollar value of friendship appeals to people,” Williamson said the other day, explaining why he thought “Money and Friends” had been able to tour for over a year in Australia, a country with a total population of 17 million.
One review in Australia said admiringly of the play that it was “uncluttered by autobiography,” an observation that Williamson said was not entirely true. He and his wife, in fact, have a beach house south of Sydney, where the idea for “Money and Friends” occurred to him.
“This small beach community I’ve found over the years has tighter bondings than anything you find in the big city,” he said. “The big city is still far too dispersed for real social contact. But in these holiday communities I observed that there is an almost primeval urge for tribe affiliation: To have some kind of group that you live with face-to-face on a day-to-day basis. And part of the workings of the tribe is that very disparate types are coped with within the tribe. I observed myself getting very affectionate to people and very attached to people that I normally wouldn’t meet in the city. Because you want that to happen. It’s such a desperate need in your life to have a tribe–that’s been lost in modern urban society.”
Williamson, who had just flown in the day before from Sydney, was sitting for an interview in the Music Center offices of the Ahmanson Theater, which is producing this American premiere of “Money and Friends.” “We were sitting on our deck one day,” he continued, “and the talk was all of disaster, of friends, because this recession in Australia for the first time has hit the middle class, as well as the working class. There were a lot of professional people in Australia in 1990, when this play was set, suddenly finding themselves out of jobs. And I thought, ‘What would happen to this little tribe if its most loved member suddenly had a personal financial disaster? Would anyone come to their aid?’ And I started asking myself the question: ‘If one of my friends suddenly was devastated through no fault of their own, would I write the check out?’ And I wasn’t sure I would.”
Such moral self-scrutiny has distinguished Williamson’s scenarios all along and was at the center of “Emerald City,” his 1987 comedy about a respected playwright who tries to sell out by becoming a film producer, only to be impaled on a few inextinguishable principles in the end. The play, which was a huge hit in Australia, reached New York in a small but critically favored production Off Off Broadway and in 1990 was given an indifferent staging on South Coast Rep’s second stage.
“Decency versus greed has been the common thread of all my work,” Williamson said. “And it’s part of my own failings as a human being that I’d like to be more decent and generous than, in fact, I am. I can feel those warring, competing needs in me. I find that the sort of society that we have in Australia and America–that very competitive, individualistic society–is very destructive of human closeness. It’s very hard to extend the circle of care beyond the nuclear family in a society that’s really highly competitive, where the penalties for financial failure are enormous.
“And what passes for friendship then is often very shallow. It’s usually expediency. It’s expedient to associate with this person because it helps your career.”
With the exception of the two university lecturers played by Gross and Thorson, the main characters in “Money and Friends” are ardent careerists–the TV host of a rising environmental show and the former magazine journalist who married him for money, a real estate-speculating surgeon, a corporate lawyer with the ethics of an eel and his social climbing wife who’s aching to leave him for a B-movie producer. On the whole they’re a morally threadbare lot that Williamson has rounded up for some serious fun, though at the same time he insists he actually has some affinity for them.
“I like all the characters in ‘Money and Friends’ because I know and my wife knows that there’s only a whisker between them and me.”
This is a little hard to believe, but in any case they’re a group of characters that shouldn’t look altogether foreign to Los Angeles audiences despite the occasional odd word or turn of phrase that places them on a continent 6,500 miles away. “Our new rich are every bit as awful as the American new rich,” Williamson said. “I think they’ll be recognizable types.”
When different American producers were negotiating to bring “Money and Friends” to America earlier, there was some pressure to relocate the play to Malibu or the Hamptons on Long Island, but Williamson and Blakemore resisted. “I mean,” said the playwright, “we felt that audiences might actually be interested in a story that comes from another culture.”
The situation recalled the jokey subplot in “Emerald City” that had a tacky Australian film producer trying to persuade the play’s screenwriter hero to relocate an authentic story about an aboriginal woman to Tennessee in order to appeal to the American market.
One concession to local audiences has been made with “Money and Friends”: The actors, who include Lizbeth MacKay, John McMartin, Lisa Banes and John Getz, will not attempt the somewhat tricky Australian accent that, Williamson believes, on the American tongue “often comes out sounding like cockney or some strange variant of South African.”
“It works marvelously well with American speech,” said Blakemore, also a native of Australia, who has become a leading London-based director of such prestigious hits as “Noises Off,” “City of Angels” and “The Benefactors,” and directed Williamson’s early play “The Removalists” at London’s Royal Court in 1975. “At the same time I’ve kept it in Australia because I believe the humor and the attitudes, though similar, are not the same. Australian humor is drier, and the temperament is a little more pessimistic, a little bit less sentimental perhaps, and I think we’ve preserved that.”
Williamson, who recently turned 50, grew up near Melbourne, the son of a bank teller. From an early age he was tall and gangly (eventually reaching 6 feet 7 inches), not gifted by God to pursue his first passion, Australian Rules football: “My motivation for becoming a writer,” he once said, “as is the case with most Australian writers, was that I failed at sport.”
After stumbling through two universities in search of a degree in thermodynamics, he began writing plays for a Maoist collective in Melbourne in the days when young Australian men were starting to go to jail instead of to Vietnam to fight Asians alongside the Americans. “Stork,” an adaptation of his second play, “The Coming of Stork,” about an awkward, sex-starved drop-out engineer, became, in 1971, the first domestic box-office success of the Australian film revival. It was also the first in a long series of successful screen adaptations of his plays, though only a few of these films reached theaters in the United States. The most popular of these was the Bruce Beresford-directed “Don’s Party,” the 1976 pre-“Big Chill” story of a group of university radicals who have melted into bourgeoisie complacency.
He was excommunicated from the Maoist collective in ’72 after his growing interest in psychology and the comic behavior of the middle class took him away from the group’s preferred reformist plot lines.
In a country whose fierce egalitarianism often mocks the idea of success, Williamson’s rising popularity at the box office made him an object of suspicion among two apparently opposing groups of critics: those who found his sometimes unflattering accounts of Australian society offensive (and unfit for export) and those who found his work not offensive enough, that of an insufficiently radical entertainer.
He has continued to be dogged by such criticism, which has led him to describe his homeland on at least one occasion as “not a pleasant atmosphere to be a playwright in.”
Yet, at 50, he is the nation’s preeminent playwright, if not its top screenwriter. In the last 20 years in America only David Mamet has been as versatile, turning out anything like as much high-level work for both stage and screen. In addition to “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “Gallipoli,” both written with director Peter Weir, Williamson wrote the widely praised 1988 HBO miniseries starring Gary Busey, “A Dangerous Life,” about the final days of the corrupt regime of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In 1978, his play, “The Club” (renamed “Players”), which cast a cold eye on the corruptions of big time sport, was given a prominent production at the Kennedy Center and went on to Broadway. But it was short-lived, having opened during the media blackout of a newspaper strike.
Like the work of Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn, Williamson’s plays are serious comedies whose darker (and therefore, more respectable) implications are sometimes obscured by the surface gleam of their wit and farcical humor.
“I’m a social satirist and I enjoy looking at the way the human being uses 90% of the power of his cerebral cortex to justify and rationalize the impulses which come from the lower brain,” he said. “That’s the human comedy to a certain extent. We have this massive computing apparatus that 95% of the time is rationalizing and justifying behavior which is really unable to be rationalized and justified: power, status, sex, acquisition–all of that.”
“I think he’s certainly up there with Ayckbourn and Simon Gray, he’s absolutely comparable to them,” said Michael Blakemore, who regards Williamson as “an antipodean Moliere.”
“But he is, as I say, writing about Australia, and there isn’t that degree of curiosity in Australia.”
Back home, in a country where socialism is more honored than in America and where the academic community is much more left wing, Williamson’s plays do not always measure up on the scale of political correctness, their affluent, status-conscious characters sometimes judged to be jejune and unworthy of dramatic examination.
To such criticism, he replies, “I can see nothing wrong with dealing in a satirical fashion with an articulate, wealthy class that persistently ignore every difficulty in the society around them. I mean, if I were celebrating that class. . . . It’s as if you said to Moliere, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing writing about the French middle class at a time when there are people starving in the streets? This is highly immoral.’ And he’s the greatest comic writer of all time.”
Australian film director Gillian Armstrong, who brought renewed attention to her homeland with the movies “My Brilliant Career,” “High Tide” and others, says about Williamson: “I think the feeling is that because many of his plays have been really commercial that he can’t be a really ‘serious’ playwright. But he has written some wonderful ones. And, I mean, he’s studied in the schools and so on. I really admire him.”
“There’s a huge prejudice against comedy on the stage,” Williamson said, referring to some critics and theater directors, “and yet it’s one of the areas that the stage handles better than anything else. It’s a great paradox. The essence of drama is unpredictability. The minute a ‘socially worthy’ play goes onstage, you know exactly what those characters are going to do for the rest of the (expletive) play. So why have you come? I think journalism and prose handles social problems and desperation stories far better than any other milieu. I think an ounce of good, tough journalism does far more than three hours of holier-than-thou breast-beating on the stage. The very word ‘play’ has something to do with fun and invention.”
Much as he tweaks the ambitions and venality of fellow Australians in his plays, Williamson remains something of a patriot, not eager to join the migration of so many of his country’s leading film figures to Hollywood. He has remained committed to the idea of an Australian national culture, independent of the powerful influences of Great Britain and America. He considers Sydney “a much more civilized place” than Los Angeles.
A few years ago, when he was in town for some script meetings with producers, his friend, the expatriate movie director Bruce Beresford, took him on a tour of the city and freeways, explaining how gang members routinely shot innocent bystanders from speeding cars. “It’s just a cowboy society, isn’t it?” Williamson asked, blinking at the thought of all the handguns stashed in all the glove compartments of all the cars on all the freeways . . .
His sense of Los Angeles was also shaped uncomfortably by seeing the production of David Rabe’s scabrous comedy “Hurlyburly” at the Westwood Playhouse, with Sean Penn and Danny Aiello as two misogynistic hustlers scraping bottom in the Hollywood Hills.
“The guy, the Sean Penn character,” he recalled at the time, ruefully, “does terrible things to this woman and these people (in the audience) were just laughing their heads off! If I’d just been watching the play by myself, I would have thought, ‘Well, it’s a bit overwritten, but it’s really getting at something, what this city is about.’ But these people thought it was funny what he was doing to her! I mean is that the way people treat each other here?”
His interviewer was uncertain then how to answer that question, but with the prospect now of “Money and Friends” about to unveil these portraits of Sydney’s best mercantile minds at the Doolittle, it seems possible a spiritual link between the two cities is closer to being forged.
– Sean Mitchell