Director/playwright David Willinger has adapted William Saroyan’s forgotten 1951 novel, “Rock Wagram,” for the stage. His play, titled “The Upper Lip,” will be presented by Theater for the New City May 2 to 19, 2013. Saroyan’s ambitious novel, which was seemingly out of sync with the zeitgeist of the early ’50s philosophically and politically, is his most autobiographical and confessional work.
The book is the story of an Armenian-American bartender, Arak Vagramian, who is discovered by a Hollywood film executive and vaults to fame as a film star with the name Rock Wagram. After fourteen middling romantic movies, he recognizes himself as lost on the materialist quagmire of Tinseltown and enlists in the Army, anticipating service in World War II. Before his induction, he drives home to Fresno, CA to reconnect with his Armenian family, particularly the family matriarch, his grandmother Lula. She convinces him to dive into a romantic relationship with a young New York socialite named Ann Ford that contains his doom.
The rest of the novel charts his postwar life, when his marriage has failed and his film career has aborted. The book is a road trip of the soul, a picaresque journey through American landscapes that are both fertile and barren as Rock searches for his authentic self. Its tone is quintessentially modernist and skeptical, contradicting the prevalent view of Saroyan as a sentimentalist. It contains numerous, lengthy dialogue segments that are on par with Saroyan’s best dramatic writing from “The Time of Your Life,” “Hello Out There” and “The Beautiful People.”
The play’s title, “The Upper Lip,” is a reference to the book’s discussion of an Armenian man’s mustache, symbolizing everything Rock lost in Hollywood and America that was authentic in his modest beginnings. This will be a multimedia production, integrating live and filmed action in creative ways: providing visual environments for stage action and flashbacks of Rock’s childhood, providing the landscape as he travels cross-country by car and motorcycle, reconstructing Rock’s career as a film star and illustrating his psychic states in subjective montages.
David Willinger has had a long standing interest in Saroyan’s work and considers him an unjustly neglected writer of the highest stature. Willinger directed Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” long ago and still regards it as “the best American play ever written.” Despite his familiarity with Saroyan’s work, he was unaware of “Rock Wagram” until he stumbled upon it on a bookshelf. He saw its plot as a quintessential American hero (or anti-hero) story, on par with that of our best 20th century novelists. He observes, “It is a picture of the false promise of the American Dream, searching for spiritual authenticity. It is riddled with American humor and pathos.” But it was the novel’s dialogue that captivated him. “Saroyan at his best is a great writer of dialogue for the stage. There was dialogue in this novel that just had to be pulled out. It is full of vivid characters. It was a ready-made play.”
Willinger notes that Saroyan’s biographers have portrayed him as trying to complete with Steinbeck and Hemingway in his later novels. Dissatisfied with the second-string fame allotted to short story writers, he wrestled with himself to produce full-length works of prose that would rival those of giants of his generation. Saroyan hoped that his mostly-forgotten final books, “The Adventures of Wesley Jackson” (1946), “Rock Wagram” (1951), and “The Laughing Matter” (1953), would be compared to “The Grapes of Wrath” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” To these, Willinger adds another giant competitor: Camus. The hero of “Rock Wagram” careens through his life almost on impulse and unable to explain his actions even to himself – becoming a film star because a stranger makes an appointment with him; later abandoning that life like a roll of the dice; joining the army through no patriotic conviction or sense of duty when he was given every chance to steer clear of it. He could easily have said with Camus’s anti-hero Mersault that he did it because the sun was in his eyes.
But inside “Rock Wagram,” Saroyan actually wrote a great play and Willinger sees his task as an adapter as to reveal it. “I’m just doing the the editing that needed to be done in the first place,” he writes. “My playscript telescopes the book’s action, clarifying and distilling it. It discards some secondary plots and compresses the action (primarily in the second half of the book) to clarify and distill the plot.”
David Willinger’s last TNC production was “Winter Wedding” (2011) by the late, famed Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, which he co-translated with Laurel Hessing. In 2011, he also directed “Under the Shadow of Wings,” a double-bill of “The Death of Tintagiles” by Maeterlinck and “Karna and Kunti” by Tagore, for the Ambassador Theatre in Washington DC. His other TNC productions include “Job’s Passion” by Hanoch Levin, “Don Juan in N.Y.C.” by Eduardo Machado, “Master and Margarita,” adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie from the novel by Bulgakov, his own adaptation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers, “Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad and his own musical adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Manor,” called “The Open Gate.” Other TNC productions include the American premiere of “Jim the Lionhearted” by Rene Kalisky (in Willinger’s own translation), “Minus One” by Gyavira Lasana, “He Saw His Reflection” by Miranda McDermott and Willinger’s own plays “Bombing the Cradle,” “Caprichos” and “The Trail of Tears: A Drama from the Historical Record.”
Willinger has also directed at LaMaMa E.T.C., The Cubiculo, The Interart Center, HERE, Hartley House Theater, Avalon Repertory Theater and the Laurie Beechman Theatre. His full-length indie film, “Lunatics, Lovers, and Actors,” has shown in five festivals in the US and UK. He is Professor of Theater at City College, where he has also directed some thirty plays. He has received awards from the N.E.A., the N.E.H., the Fulbright Foundation, Drama-Logue, A Translation Center Award, the Jerome Foundation, a Rifkind Center Award, a Mellon Fellowship, a number of PSC-CUNY Awards, and an award for Rayonnement des Lettres a l’Etranger from the Belgian Ministry of Culture. He writes, “I am delighted to be doing this play at Theater for the New City, which Crystal Field has made my artistic home. It is a truly nurturing environment for theater directors and writers, and a bastion of artistic freedom.”
William Saroyan was an Armenian-American who grew up in Fresno, California. His “The Time of Your Life” (1939) was a huge Broadway hit, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for playwriting and a Drama Desk Award. It was later made into a film with James Cagney (1948). Saroyan scored equal successes with his short story series “My Name is Aram” (1940) and his warm-hearted novella “The Human Comedy” (1943), which became a film classic starring Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, and Donna Reed. While he continued to write, publish, and produce prolifically until the end of his life, his plays, including “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (1941) and “Hello Out There” (1941), were only modestly successful. Dissatisfied with second-string fame as a short story writer, he struggled to produce full-length works of prose that would rival those of giants of his generation- Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway-but never managed to do so. His ambitious post-war novels, “The Adventures of Wesley Jackson” (1946), “Rock Wagram” (1951) and “The Laughing Matter” (1953), are little remembered today.
“The Upper Lip” will be acted by Alan Cordoba (as Rock Wagram), John Calero, Victory Chappotin, Ben Hawthorne, Spencer Humphrey, Scott Lilly, Amanda Moreau, Enrique Pizarro, Erin Poland, Avninder Singh, Mary Tierney and Cynthia Toronto. Film director and camera operator is Herman Lew. Film editor is Babak Rassi. Costume design is by Susan Hemley. Lighting design is by Brian Aldous. Music is by Arthur Abrams.
“The Upper Lip” will be presented by Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, at East 10th Street) from May 2 to 19, 2013, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors and are available at the box office: 212-254-1109 or through the website: http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net.