The Way She Lives Now

With two books under her belt and a third on the way, Cincinnati-born playwright and screenwriter Theresa Rebeck is a novelist now, too.

Photograph by Jennifer S. Altman

Theresa Rebeck is not one to compare herself to Charles Dickens. The prolific playwright is a Charles Dickens fan. She first read Great Expectations as a sophomore at Ursuline Academy. She has a dog named after Mrs. Boffin from Our Mutual Friend. But there’s no getting around it: With the release this month of her second novel, Twelve Rooms With a View, Rebeck is a more accomplished author of fiction than Charles Dickens was a playwright. (No, Oliver! doesn’t count.)

“There’s this mysterious question of why certain writers can move back and forth between forms, and other writers not so much,” says Rebeck, who has also worked extensively in film (Harriet the Spy) and television (NYPD Blue, Law and Order: Criminal Intent). “Both Charles Dickens and Henry James loved the theater, and desperately, desperately wanted to write plays. But they weren’t very good at it.”

Plays have always been the thing for Rebeck. Counting one-acts, she has penned more than three dozen, including her 1992 Off-Broadway breakout Spike Heels, 2003’s one-woman hit Bad Dates, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist Omnium Gatherum, and most recently, the backstage satire The Understudy. But she also has a PhD in Victorian literature (Brandeis University, class of ’89) and has never lost her passion for the likes of Dickens, Anthony Trollope (“The Way We Live Now is one of the most brilliant books ever written”), E.M. Forster (“He did not write very many novels, but they’re all crack to me”) and George Eliot. “I felt I would regret it if I never tried it,” she says of tackling her first novel, 2008’s Three Girls and Their Brother.

Rebeck also felt like she could use a break from all the compromises and commercial pressures of…theater. And you thought we were going to say Hollywood. As a Razzie Award–winning screenwriter on 2004’s Catwoman, she’s no stranger to the vicissitudes of
movieland, but Rebeck doesn’t think the theater is any purer. “I don’t like the politics of show business,” she says. “I just think it’s gross. I’m appalled by the way people behave.” This is made clear in The Understudy, which will come to Playhouse in the Park next season. Like her 1994 play The Family of Mann (about a sitcom writer) and 2008’s Our House (about reality TV), The Understudy is an acid take on how entertainers give the masses what they want. Rebeck has fun with both Kafka and the Broadway trend towards casting movie and TV stars, even as the play itself featured Mark Paul Gosselaer (who appeared on Saved by the Bell and NYPD Blue) and Justin Kirk (from Weeds) during its recent run at the Roundabout Theater in New York.

“Honestly, I find the theater world so difficult that I wanted another place to go and be a writer without feeling like I was gonna get hammered all the time,” she says. “So that’s what I did. I like how long it takes to write a novel. My husband has said to me, ‘You’re the opposite of Dorothy Parker: You like writing, but you hate having written.’ And that is true. I enjoy writing. I learn a lot from it, and I find it curious and challenging and mysterious where those people come from and what they have to say to me. I enjoy every aspect of it.”

Rebeck started Three Girls and Her Brother in 2002, and couldn’t manage more than 50 pages for the first two-and-a-half years. “And then I thought, you know, do it or don’t do it,” she says. Simply writing prose presented all kinds of new storytelling hurdles. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to get words on the page unless they were expressing character as well as events,” she says. Realizing the book should be in the first person was a breakthrough: She’d know which character was talking, instead of some omniscient being. “I thought, Well, you could pretend it’s a monologue. A long monologue,” Rebeck recalls. “And then I thought, You’ve never even written a really long monologue! So I actually wrote Bad Dates as practice.” Indeed, Bad Dates, while told entirely in one voice by one actress in one room, contains a multitude of times and places and other characters.

Description was a challenge too. “It just wasn’t a muscle I’d developed or used to any great extent,” Rebeck says. “In the theater, I don’t write stage directions like O’Neill or Tennessee Williams that are so elegant and novelistic. My stage directions are: She goes over here. She sits on the table.” She also worried about leaning too much on dialogue, but ultimately told herself that if it was good enough for Mark Twain and private eye master Ross MacDonald, it was good enough for her. When she finally had a manuscript in hand, “I was just so proud of myself for actually having done it,” she says. “I really didn’t think that hard about how to get it published. Then when they offered me a two-book deal I thought, You should try this again.

Rebeck says Twelve Rooms With a View was harder, but then it’s also more ambitious (and told in the third person). It has something of a theatrical premise: a group of people, both family and outsiders, are thrown together in a single, life-changing location, but one too vast for any stage—an immense, mansion-style apartment on Central Park. The main character, Tina, a rebellious, down-on-her-luck outsider, winds up living there when she and her two sisters unexpectedly inherit the place—maybe—from their mother. “I had sort of fallen into one of those apartments,” Rebeck says. “I was very moved and startled by the mystery of it, the way they do go on forever, and how the mystery of New York City inhabits them.” The book plays up that mystery with some fantastic, fairytale-like elements, including broad allusions to the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Tina’s fundamental journey in the book is a twist on fairytales as well. Or, as Rebeck puts it: “How do you break out of the limitations of the problematic family and move into a stronger, wider, and independent self?

“But it’s also just a fun real estate–porn kind of romp,” she adds with a laugh. “I am having it both ways! But…can’t I?”

Sure. Why not? It’s not that long a journey from a 19th-century comedy of manners—which, after all, were the best-sellers of their day, not rarefied literature—to Dominick Dunne, Jay McInerny, or even Gossip Girl and so-called “chick lit.” (One of the blurbs for Twelve Rooms even comes from Manhattan real estate doyenne Barbara Corcoran.) Rebeck has lived in New York City since 1989, but in Brooklyn, not the Upper East Side, which (along with her Cincinnati upbringing) brings her close to gilded Manhattan while also helping her maintain some distance as a satirical observer. The tricky part is that the audience for Rebeck’s novels are probably the same people they satirize. Rebeck loved the review that said Three Girls was “as much fun to read as People magazine.” Maybe that’s why the book was briefly optioned by the CW television network, home of Gossip Girl (which the author has never watched).

She hasn’t left TV completely behind. Rebeck is working on the Dreamworks-produced Smash for Showtime, which is set backstage at a Broadway musical, with lyrics and music by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Though the biggest name on this project is executive producer Steven Spielberg, who hired her after reading The Understudy. “It’s just been a great experience to talk to Spielberg,” Rebeck says. “He’s a wonderful storyteller. It sort of erupts from him in dazzling moments of images, which I think, over 40 years of being a filmmaker, that must be the way the brain finally works. It’s very exciting to get yourself into thinking that way.”

Rebeck maintains that her film and TV work has never had an impact on the way she writes her plays. “[But] I’m starting to think maybe writing fiction is going to,” she says. “My work in the theater is so much about forward motion: I like things to barrel ahead. Novels move more slowly. That sense of time is starting to move around my brain.” She’s already halfway through novel number three, which has gone more easily than its predecessors. “It makes me think Malcolm Gladwell was right,” she says. “You spend 10,000 hours doing anything, and you get kind of good at it.”

So while she may not yet compare herself to Dickens, the playwright/screenwriter is probably going to have to accept the title: “When you’ve written two and you’re halfway through your third, that makes you a novelist, right?” she says. If there was really any doubt, consider Rebeck’s latest play, which will premiere at the Dorset Theater Festival in Vermont in August: It’s called The Novelist.

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