by Brian Marks
Late on the night of July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy was driving through Chappaquiddick Island on the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard. In the car with the 37-year-old senator was Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign aide to Kennedy’s assassinated brother, Robert F. Kennedy. The events of that fateful drive exist only in statements from Kennedy. What is undisputed is that the car went over a bridge, flipping over and submerging into the pond below. Kennedy escaped. Kopechne did not.
Kennedy’s great shame has been dramatized before, in Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water and the recent film Chappaquiddick. But playwright Peter Lefcourt’s new adaptation, The Death and Life of Mary Jo Kopechne, takes a different approach. It seeks to give a story to a woman who has mostly been deprived of one, and even imagines the bright future she might have had.
Lefcourt, also an accomplished screenwriter and producer, is joined by Terri Hanauer, the play’s director. Hanauer, an actor and a playwright herself, is the recipient of six LA Stage Scene awards. She’s also married to Lefcourt. I spoke to the two in the lobby of the Odyssey Theatre before a preview for their newest collaboration. Terri is initially occupied with a pre-performance crisis, but she joins us later in the interview.
@ThisStage: Over the last few months there has almost been a competition to see who has the timelier work of art in relation to the current #MeToo Movement and politics, and something about The Death and Life of Mary Jo Kopechne just seems to check all those boxes. Men behaving badly, abuses of power, women who are silenced. . . When did the story first come into your mind?
Lefcourt: Honestly, I did not set out to write a play about an issue. I can’t write it that way. I have always been interested in Chappaquiddick because I found it to be a fascinating study of disgrace under pressure. By now most people know the basic facts about it. But what got me is that nobody knows anything about her. She was essentially — and still is — the answer to a trivia question. If you Wikipedia her you’ll get a paragraph or two about Chappaquiddick, you’ll get her born, died, went to school here, but you know nothing about who this woman is, and I decided that she deserved — at least posthumously — a life. Something I felt was that she was deprived not only of her life, but she didn’t even get the type of media coverage that Sirhan Sirhan or Lee Harvey Oswald got, and they were villains! She was an innocent victim, and she wound up as “Oh, who is that girl in Ted Kennedy’s car?”
There’d been a movie made with Jason Clarke and Kata Mara, and I didn’t just want to tell that story again, and I had the idea of what would happen if the two older Kennedy brothers who been assassinated, John and Bobby, suddenly came back to help him do damage control. And that gave the play some voice. It wasn’t just “I’m sorry.”
Of the three brothers, Teddy really was always the fuck-up kid brother. He was the one who was wrecking up cars and he was the one who almost flunked out of his school. And this seemed to me the perfect situation, that here he is, gotten into the ultimate mess, and here are his two big brothers coming to bail him out.
The other thing about this incident that is interesting is that it was 24 hours before the first moon landing. On some level, that swept the whole story off the front pages. It’s something that in a perverse way was to the benefit of Ted Kennedy. But I kept thinking again of Mary Jo. She was also completely obliterated by the moon landing. Not only was she dead, but she didn’t even get her time in the sun.
When you write plays and you put them on their feet, you see what they can do and you start rewriting. I think any playwright who’s done this for a long time has to realize that no matter how much he or she believes in the script, it’s what’s on that’s really important. And if you sit there and you look at it and you begin to see that a scene that you wrote isn’t playing as well as you wanted it to be, then you’ve got to fix it. If a scene doesn’t work, usually it’s the fault of the script. Not always, because sometimes the actors really mess up. But you begin to develop an ear for the problem. One of the things I’m proud about in this play is that we managed to find comedy in a very tragic situation. One of my theories about writing is that there’s no divider between comedy and drama. I think it’s all life. You can find comedy in the bleakest of subjects, and any good comedy has to be based on something serious, otherwise it’s just silly. So we don’t know yet how the audience will treat this. Some people may feel they don’t have permission to laugh. Every audience is completely different. You never know how your work is going to affect people — from night to night.
@ThisStage: You’re showing this woman who tragically died, and giving her the future she never really had. It’s an interesting approach because so many adaptations of tragedies like this take such a dark, tragic look at these people’s lives, and you forget that they’re just people. Was it important to you to show what could have happened?
Lefcourt: It’s no secret that she comes back in this play. It’s in the program. At the end of Act I she comes back soaking wet and everyone is surprised. What I did learn about her was that she was very much into politics. She was very much devoted to Bobby Kennedy. And Mary Jo, from what people know about her, was a very serious, politically-motivated Democrat who loved politics. So I projected what kind life she would have had. There’s also the very interesting relevance to the #MeToo Movement. Here you have a very powerful, attractive man. Nobody really knows what happened between the two of them, but the circumstantial evidence is that they probably had sex or were intending to. Circumstantially, I think the proof might be that the Kennedys managed to get her body off Martha’s Vineyard within 24 hours because they didn’t want an autopsy. And why wouldn’t they want an autopsy? Why did he wait nine hours to report the accident? He knew, because he was a lawyer, that no matter what happened — if she died in that accident and he was drunk — not only wasn’t he going to be president, he was going to jail. There’s no way around vehicular manslaughter.
The other thing that’s interesting about this is the stakes. It’s pretty clear he could have beat Nixon in 1972. The irony is that, despite the fact that Kennedy did this very terrible thing, he went on to be a great senator. It was almost as if this tragedy made a decent senator out of him. He stopped drinking, his second marriage was apparently very successful, and he worked very hard in the senate to get major legislation approved. He worked very hard on healthcare and education and he was the lion of the senate. So he was truly a Shakespearean man of great abilities and great flaws. Even though he did the wrong thing, I think there’s a certain amount of sympathy for what he did. It was a very morally gray act, shading toward the black. So the other thing I try to do is to humanize him, to show what the stakes were for him, what he had to do in his life, the pressure he was getting from his brothers and fathers to keep up the Kennedy tradition. Most of the second act takes place between Teddy and Mary Jo. I think it’s an interesting scene when she blames him and he says “What were you doing getting in that car with me to begin with? What did you want to get out of this?” I think the ending is satisfactory — I hope it is. Even though she doesn’t forgive him, there’s an understanding between the two of them that he was going to get his act together. Which, in fact, he did. So I just fictionally extended what I thought she was and who she could have been. And I’m hoping that this is sort of a posthumous tribute to this woman, whom nobody knows.
@ThisStage: When you decided to incorporate elements of magical realism by having the Kennedy brothers all back, were you worried about the tone? Or how that would come off with such a serious subject?
Lefcourt: The theater allows you to do that. As long as you are psychologically honest, you can do incredible things with reality. What you can’t do to the audience is tell them a story that has no psychological, comic, or dramatic validity. But if the material is something that rings true to the audience, you can have characters doing whatever you want them to do. The theater is full of stories like this, from Shakespeare’s ghost of Banquo to Hamlet’s father. It’s one of the lovely things about the theater, that you don’t have to deal with that sense of reality. Yes we are taking a bit of a chance, that people might think that I’ve trivialized the subject, or that I’ve turned it into magic realism, but there’s separation between comedy and drama, it’s all truth.
@ThisStage: How did your creative partnership with Terri come to be?
Lefcourt: Well the director-playwright relationship is extremely important. Each one of you has to keep the other one honest. Any playwright who doesn’t listen to his director is foolish. Terri’s very smart, and she’s smart about things that I’m not smart about. First of all, she’s a former actress. So she knows actors and can communicate with actors, and that’s not an easy thing to do. I adore actors, but they’re a whole different species — they work on different muscles, and she’s really good at handling that. So we have what I call creative battles, and we’ll dig in on things. She’ll say, “It’s brilliant on the page but it doesn’t play.” And I’ll say, “Try it this way, try it that way.” But I think the result is always better than if I didn’t listen to her — I’m sure it is! I think people need checks and balances on them. I think all writers and all directors need someone to say to them ‘that might not be working.’
We’re also married, and that’s both good and bad. During our productions we end up working 24 hours a day, which is not a good thing, because we can’t stop talking about the play. We’re constantly having something brought to our attention, and suddenly we’re sitting down for dinner and we’re talking about the play. That’s the bad thing. The good thing is the same thing: we have access to each other, and we also know our strengths, and trust each other creatively.
@ThisStage: Terri, you’ve previously worked as an actress. What kind of special insight does that give you? Does it change your appreciation of actors?
Hanauer: It gives me an extraordinary view into how an actor works. It’s my first language, so my communication ability is very strong with actors. There’s not a feeling that they feel that I don’t understand. I know everything they feel so there’s nothing I can’t help them with, and there’s nothing I can’t identify with. I have tremendous love and respect for actors, and I always will. I know how hard it is, and I know the amount of courage it takes for somebody to get up on that stage.
@ThisStage: When Peter is working on a play that you two are going to collaborate on, are you involved in that process? Are you reading or editing anything once it’s done?
Hanauer: No. I mean, while he’s writing it I’m not at all.
Lefcourt: I might talk to her about it in broad terms.
Hanauer: Right, but I know very little about it. I know the theme. It’s not until the first draft that he lets me read that I’m able to go, “Okay, I think this is interesting, this is doable.” I look at it from a directing point of view, I look at it from an acting point of view, if the actors would be interested.
@ThisStage: Since Peter said working together was like working 24 hours a day, do you find you need time away from each other? Or from the subject?
Hanauer: It’s not exactly 24 hours, because Peter has his office. During rehearsal I’ll come home and we’ll talk about what went on during the day, and sometimes he’ll come to rehearsal, but it’s pretty much one of our constant conversations while we’re working on it.
Lefcourt: I try to stay away from rehearsals. I come usually every week or two just to get an eye on it. But I believe that a playwright around the stage makes actors uncomfortable. She also needs a fresh eye every now and then.
Hanauer: But it’s fun. It’s like a kid we have. So we talk about it and there’s always lots to talk about. Not just the play, but the actors. He’s the perfect person for me to talk to, because I want to make sure that what he’s trying to talk about I’m actually communicating properly to the actors so that it ends up on the stage. I think I’m very lucky to work with a writer who is there.
@ThisStage: We were talking earlier about how this play really fits in with the #MeToo Movement and stories about men in power and how they abuse that power. What’s your assessment of the theater as a space for women?
Hanauer: I think if you play ingénue parts, like many of us do, you’re vulnerable to the power of the director, or the power of a leading man — the allure, the charisma. People tend to fall in love with each other during a show — it’s called the showmance. That’s maybe different, in terms of abuse. But when you’re a young woman and trying to make way, and someone asks you to do something inappropriate, you might just do it anyway because actresses are ambitious. It happens all the time. I don’t think ambition is a bad thing. Perhaps Mary Jo Kopechne was an ambitious woman trying to get ahead in that world, so getting into a car with a senator is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just part of what happens.
@ThisStage: Has there been any disagreement on this play between you and Peter?
Hanauer: We have a couple areas where I feel it should be a certain way, he feels perhaps not. So we’re going to let the audience decide during the previews.
Lefcourt: We negotiate.
Hanauer: We negotiate. But we’ve had that less on this production. And then if it works, the audience will tell us.
The Death and Life of Mary Jo Kopechne runs through August 12 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, click here.