During the summer of 1969, teenager Richard Martin Hirsch and his friends drove around the country in a VW bus, looking for pickup basketball games and listening to Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” On the first day of their road trip, over a crackly AM radio, they heard Neil Armstrong land on the moon.
Flash forward 40 years. These friends have drifted apart and one dies. Playwright Hirsch uses the contrast between this youthful hopefulness and middle-aged death to explore the evolution and role of friendships in his premiering play, The Closeness of the Horizon, directed by Darin Anthony as a guest production at Odyssey Theatre, opening Friday.
As director and playwright discuss the play over pancakes and eggs at the Hollywood Corner, they describe it as Hirsch’s most personal play. Anthony has directed several of Hirsch’s plays””as readings at Blank Theatre’s Living Room Series and as full productions at the Odyssey and in Car Plays at Radar L.A. Their last collaboration at the Odyssey, London’s Scars, focuses on the aftermath of a subway bombing in London. In describing The Closeness of the Horizon, both repeatedly mention audience and cast members’ emotional and personal responses to it. They attribute these responses to the play’s autobiographical roots.
Horizon on the Horizon
Horizon sprang from the puzzling feelings stirred by the death of Hirsch’s friend, whom Hirsch had not seen in 10 years. At the memorial service, he and his friends quickly reverted to their high school roles. Hirsch describes how his friends treated him as if he were still their sidekick: “Everybody saw me and reacted to me like they had in high school rather than as now. My friend was the star player in high school. And there was sort of a hierarchy. They were the basketball players, and I was the fan in the corner. Interesting that that would come up after all those years automatically.” To sort through these feelings, Hirsch says, “Being me, and being very introspective and using my writing as a sort of therapy, I decided to write a play about it.”
The disconnect between his past and present selves that Hirsch felt became main character Paul’s struggle and the play’s central theme. As Hirsch explains, Paul views the road trip as a highlight that makes his current life feel emotionally dim. Paul feels he now fits in because he is traveling with two accomplished basketball players.
But Paul’s lack of connection to his friend and the friend’s death lead him to question his current emotional life. “The play explores how a friendship contributes to how we feel about ourselves,” says Hirsch. “If a friendship fails, is there something wrong with me that caused it, or is there something going on with the other person or is it just evolution””friends come and go? He’s troubled about how he feels about himself, after being successful in business. His friend dies. It brings up all this stuff””where’s he’s gone to, and where he is emotionally inside””so he’s wrestling with that.”
The play’s personal and honest representations of friendships attracted Anthony. “When I first read it,” he says, “I thought it was great, very personal. Richard put a lot of himself in it, and that was great. That’s why everyone who’s heard it or read it or seen it has felt it.” The director says the play’s power comes from its depiction of the uncomfortable moments in relationships: “There are a couple of key scenes in it that are just so honest, [things you don’t often] see people doing on stage. I got really excited about how they behave and act. Not a lot of melodrama, and it’s kind of messy, like life can be.”
To illustrate this, Anthony describes a scene in which Paul takes his frustration out on his dying friend, who is confined to a wheelchair and unable to talk: “The friends try to have an uplifting conversation about the trip, but the whole time they want to address why they’ve had this 10-year hiatus in their friendships. And one of them can’t speak, and the other one, Paul, who starts getting more and more frustrated and upset at this loss, takes it out on the guy in the wheelchair who can’t talk and defend himself. Heartbreaking. You understand exactly what he’s going through and how that launches him on his journey.”
The director and the playwright believe that audience members will recognize themselves and their friendships in the play. Hirsch and Anthony hope the play will move audience members to reflect upon their own friendships. Says Hirsch, “I don’t want to teach the audience so much as present something, give the audience an experience so that the audience will teach themselves.” The playwright welcomes how people share their own experiences after hearing the play. “People come up to me and they’re very emotional,” he says. “They saw that side in themselves or other people in the play.” Anthony wants this recognition to inspire audience members to pay more attention to their friendships: “The play presents a number of sides of friendship. Audience members will be able to find where they live, what kind of friend they are. I hope people will walk out of the play and call an old friend before it’s too late.”
Bridge Over Untroubled Waters
This production emerged from the trust that Hirsch has developed in himself as a playwright and that Anthony and Hirsch have built through their collaborations. Hirsch says his inability to promote his work thwarted his initial forays into playwriting. “As soon as I found how much I enjoyed that process of writing dialogue and that back and forth, I started going to workshops,” he recalls. “That’s where I got hooked on it. But I didn’t know how to market. I sort of lost interest to a degree.”
His successful business career and the internet enabled him to try again. Through internet searches, he learned about playwriting contests and play-development programs, such as the Blank’s. After having several plays produced and winning awards, Hirsch gained the confidence to produce his own work. Just as he did with London’s Scars, when he felt like The Closeness of the Horizon was ready for the stage, he decided to produce it and asked Anthony to direct it.
Hirsch chose Anthony because of the director’s enthusiasm for the project and his perfectionism. As with the relationships in the play, their collaboration is not always comfortable. Hirsch, for instance, struggles with Anthony’s rule that the playwright must remain silent during rehearsals. The director also frequently challenges specific word choices. Hirsch, however, welcomes these challenges because they help him improve the play. “And that’s one of the nice things about working with Darin,” says Hirsch. “He’s a perfectionist. He questions every word, especially when something doesn’t ring true, and although sometimes that’s hard, I learn from the rehearsal.”
But Hirsch also has become more comfortable turning down the director’s suggestions. Anthony says he appreciates Hirsch’s resistance: “It used to be, when we first started, if I said something, Richard would react right away. And now when I say things, he says, “˜Uh, maybe not,’ which is great. It’s good to have somebody who trusts me and trusts himself to say, “˜I don’t think so’ or “˜I thought I did it this way because”¦’ and that opens my mind up. We’ve developed a trust, and that’s nice. I really like having Richard around. I love how present he is. I think most directors don’t have playwrights around, because they are uncomfortable.”
“Crystal Blue Persuasion” promises that friendship and love are easy to find: “So don’t you give up now so easy to find/ Just look to your soul and open your mind.” In The Closeness of the Horizon, this opening of the mind, particularly as we get older, requires courage””a courage that Hirsch has shown in exploring these personal stories for audiences.
The Closeness of the Horizon, presented by CoffeeHouse Productions, opens May 18. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm, through June 24. Tickets: $25-$30. (323) 960-1054. www.plays411.com/horizon.
***All The Closeness of the Horizon production photos by Ed Krieger
Alison M. Hills, Ph.D. is a playwright, essayist, and dramaturge. Her plays have been produced at Stanford University and UCLA, where they won playwriting competitions. She wrote and performed a piece for an L.A. production of Expressing Motherhood. She co-produces A.L.A.P’s (Alliance of L.A. Playwrights) New Works Lab with L.A. theaters.