It’ s a week before Oskar Eustis’s first project as the artistic director of the Public Theater will be seen by an audience, and if he’s nervous, he’s not showing it. Tired, of course. A bit disheveled, sure. But leaning forward in his faded jean jacket and punctuating his remarks with greedy sips from a cup of coffee, he speaks about Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise with a calm, brag-free confidence, like a farmer talking about the weather or a cabbie discussing the Mets. “Rinne Groff is a poster child for one of the most important things we’re doing,” he says.
“One great function of the Public Theater,” he explains, is to introduce to a broader audience “talented artists with skill and complexity, who have grown up and developed in a downtown theater scene, experimenting with form, questioning the primacy of narrative, and breaking apart expectations.”
As a member of the clever collagist collective Elevator Repair Service, Groff certainly has cavorted with deconstructionists, helping to compose movement-theater pieces out of found texts, uncanny choreography, and a cheerful disregard for logical connection. As a playwright, she has devised engaging, puzzling plots, while examining and appropriating various arcane idioms and manners of speech–air traffic control lingo, abstract number theory, the taunting boasts of Muhammad Ali–in such plays as Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat, The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, and Inky.
The Ruby Sunrise, currently in previews, maintains an exciting sense of formal ingenuity and thematic irresolution, even as it provides plenty of story and character to hang onto. The first act follows Ruby, a teenage girl in rural Indiana in 1927 trying to build a television out of junk, determination, and notions gleaned from Popular Mechanics. In the second act, set in a New York City TV studio in 1952, Ruby’s daughter Lulu, a “script girl,” seeks to chronicle her unsung mother’s experience in a television drama. Collaborating with (and falling for) a promising writer, Lulu manages to get Ruby’s story aired, but not without some compromises.
Eustis was hooked the moment he read The Ruby Sunrise. The play’s questions echoed some of his own obsessions: how stories work and can have impact, how the truth matters in them, how to retain integrity within an inherently impure system, how to make things happen without abandoning one’s vision. The different levels of fictive reality appealed to him too. And he loved the relationships between the characters, especially “the vexed questions of a visionary woman and man trying to form a partnership of true equals.”
At the Trinity Rep in Rhode Island, where he served as artistic director for 11 years before taking up the reins at the Public last May, Eustis directed the play in the spring of 2004, in a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. He was planning on bringing the play to Off-Broadway, but when he was hired to succeed George C. Wolfe, he realized: “This is a perfect match for the Public.”
As the theater celebrates its 50th anniversary, Eustis is looking toward reviving one of its most fruitful traditions: “building more bridges,” as he puts it, between experimental work and more conventional plays, thus compelling artists–and audiences–of various stripes to rub up against each other in the theaters. “The collision between all the different visions and approaches produces enormously rich feasts,” he says, nodding to Joe Papp, who’d do such things as “put Pirates of Penzance next to Richard Foreman’s Egyptology.” Thinking more about profuse creativity and cross-fertilization than about launching the next Broadway transfer, he wants constant activity in the theater–plays and performance pieces going up all the time, unburdened by the risks that accompany big budgets. “We can have a steady series of new plays that don’t cost half a million dollars and give young writers a way to attach here,” he says. With his production of
The Ruby Sunrise, Eustis is not just asserting his belief in Rinne Groff’s original voice, he is also declaring the Public’s commitment to imaginative young writers. And he is urging artists and audiences alike to venture beyond their separate, cozy corners.
Ruby self-destructs because she rigidly demands all or nothing. But Lulu finds a way to do the best she can in a reality she can fight but not conquer. Eustis is talking about Ruby when he says: “I grew up in the Communist left, so I understand the impulse to self-destruct, the idea that if you can’t achieve the fullness of your vision, it’s better not to achieve anything. Or you narrow your world as much as you need to feel pure within it. You create a niche for yourself where you and your 14 friends can be contemptuous of those who don’t agree with you and not risk the messiness and compromise of participating in your community, your city, your country.” Insisting on the risk, Eustis is expressing his ethic for the Public Theater as well.