Robert Brustein’s Exposed, a loosely based retelling of Molière’s comic masterpiece Tartuffe, with a scathing, ripped-from-the-headlines twist, is the current collaboration between two BU-affiliated theater entities. The play’s high-octane verbal sparring—by turns searing and hilarious—swirls around a charlatan televangelist named Dick Cockburn, whose name, as if it weren’t unfortunate enough, is insistently mispronounced. Those indulging or unmasking him include a rich power broker and his mother, his much younger, former chorus girl wife, his gay son, and his gorgeous daughter. Even God Himself makes a brief appearance, with musical accompaniment.
It’s a volatile mix that sheds light on contemporary American hypocrisy, venality, greed, and prejudice—subjects that the 88-year-old playwright says preoccupy him in a world he sees as topsy-turvy with zealotry and violence.
The founding director of Yale Repertory Theatre and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater (ART), Brustein is a noted critic, educator, and playwright. He says his satirical script and its unsparing look at contemporary wealth, politics, and evangelical fervor is likely to make audiences squirm with recognition. And that, he says, is a good thing.
Born in New York in 1927, Brustein was dean of the Yale School of Drama from 1966 to 1979, when he became a Harvard University professor of English. He taught there until 2002, and is now a senior research fellow at Harvard and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University. A living legend in the theater world, he has mentored generations of actors, including Meryl Streep and Tony Shalhoub. He was for 20 years director of the Loeb Drama Center, where he founded the ART Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. He retired as artistic director in 2002 and is now founding director.
Brustein has been theater critic for The New Republic since 1959 and has written 20 books, among them The Theatre of Revolt, Making Scenes, Dumbocracy in America, Millennial Stages, and The Tainted Muse: Prejudices and Presumptions in Shakespeare’s Works and Times. He wrote 11 stage adaptations while at ART, and has written several original plays.
BU Today spoke with Brustein recently to discuss the collaborative nature of his craft, the power of satire, and how he unwinds at home by watching movies.
BU Today: Exposed seems to reflect a general dyspepsia about the way things are going in America.
Brustein: It’s dyspepsia, yes, about the declining quality of our country’s culture and economics. I feel the best way to deal with these is to satirize them. I hope it’s fun, because sometimes you can accomplish more with satire.
Are the characters based on real people?
I’d get sued if I named them, but most are based on real characters.
There’s a certain type of right-winger who identifies with the NRA and tries to change the nature of his humanity as a result. He’s gotten very rich and wants to use his money to buy influence.
Do you keep revising your work?
Yes. I keep editing it. My director, Steven Bogart, was over last night and we made a number of changes. As long as I’m around, I’m happy to do some rewriting. You never finish a play. A play is a collaborative enterprise, it’s a collective enterprise, and you listen to your collaborators who have always been extremely valuable. That’s why I started a repertory company, so we can be together on a permanent basis, working with people I know and trust and listening to what they have to say.
You’ve been a lyricist and many sections of the script are in rhyming verse. Were these originally intended as musical lyrics?
The rhyming parts have an interesting evolution. They were originally written as lyrics for music, but every composer who committed got sick. I thought we’d try the lyrics as spoken verse, and I was thrilled by the sound of it. And of course it’s based on a verse play, Tartuffe.
What does the play say about religion today?
It is saying that certain uses of religion are really hypocritical and that they accomplish the opposite of what they set out to do, that there is some tension between human appetites and religious morality that is not recognized. And that religion can often be a smokescreen for greed. Religion as an impulse for killing people worries me, and it also stimulates my theatrical impulses.
You watch a lot of movies at home. What are your favorite genres?
Aristotle speaks of purgation catharsis, and I believe in that. I watch very violent movies, and I’m rabidly opposed to any forms of violence. I can purge whatever is in me through watching the movies. My wife can’t understand my passion for these movies. I love action films, bandits, and bank robbers. And I like science fiction—forays into space.
Are there any forms of drama you dislike?
I despise sitcoms, things that misrepresent human character or are programmed to flatter the audience. I don’t much like domestic comedies or dramas. Ibsen was said to write domestic plays, but they are domestic plays with metaphysical overtones.
How much does your being Jewish inform your writing?
It totally informs what I do. You feel both part of society and apart from it. My father came from Poland and Russia well before the war and died at 79. I wasn’t observant. I’d be dragged to synagogue once in a while, and I was Bar Mitzvahed—had a big party, wore my first tuxedo, and got a lot of handkerchiefs. But being Jewish is very important to me. There’s the whole tradition of Jewish comedy—Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks. I loved Isaac Bashevis Singer; I did two of his plays at Yale Rep. I remember he lived on 86th Street. I knocked on his door once, and he opened the door with a bird sitting on his head.
What sparked your interest in the theater?
I began as a musician. I played clarinet and tenor sax. At summer camp I played a variety of stage roles and almost became an actor until my father stepped in. An agent came to see me in a show at Amherst College and wanted to sign me up, and my father said no. My father didn’t want me to be poor. Later, I quit my graduate studies in medieval history and went to Yale Drama School. I was disappointed with Yale and its training, so I went to Columbia and got a PhD in dramatic literature. Of course, I returned to Yale as drama school dean in 1966, and started Yale Rep.
What has your experience been working with BCAP and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre?
I’m very proud of the company. It’s an extraordinary cast, and I’m thrilled with the director, who is highly sensitive to the play. I wish it were a longer run.
The Boston Center for American Performance and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre joint production of Exposed runs in the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through Friday, December 18 (no performance December 14). There will be a talkback with the playwright and director after tonight’s performance. Tickets are $30 for the general public, $25 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, senior citizens, and groups of 10 or more, $15 with CFA membership, and $10 for students. Members of the BU community can get one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Copley Square or the Orange Line to Back Bay. Purchase tickets here, call 617-933-8600, or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office.