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Stage

Leight, at the End of the Tunnel

He Won a Tony For His First Play. Then TV Seduced Him Away. Now, Warren Leight is Writing for the Theater Again, Thanks to Center Stage.

Sam Holden
When the Lights Went Down on Broadway: Warren Leight went from playwright to screenwriter for Law & Order. "If I'm just doing TV, I kind of go crazy," he says. "If I'm just [writing plays], I go broke."

By Tom Siebert | Posted 11/20/2002

"Being a playwright today is like being a blacksmith in 1925," Warren Leight says. "Things are going in a different direction."

Leight should know. Like "a CIA agent writing poetry at night," as he puts it, Leight earns his rent money as a writer and producer for the NBC series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But he made his fame as a writer for Broadway, and this Thursday he premieres his autobiographical drama about living in China, No Foreigners Beyond This Point, at Center Stage.

Though Leight freely admits that it's the money that keeps him writing for the TV franchise (which he jokingly refers to as Law & Order: DMV), he says it's a step up from a lot of the hired-gun work he's been paid to churn out over the past two decades.

For his first produced film script, the slasher flick Mother's Day, "one of the reviews said, 'It's as if there was a heretofore unknown force in the universe called anti-talent,'" Leight says, laughing. "But you have to make a living. . . . I have been way more bitter than this at times in my life."

In fact, if not for Center Stage and TV impresario Dick Wolf, the Tony-winning New York writer could have become a textbook example of how the Hollywood machine takes great talents and turns them into self-hating hacks.

From 1980 through the late '90s, in addition to Mother's Day, Leight the screenwriter was responsible for such cinematic insults as the talking-penis comedy Me and Him and the very bad feel-good Greg Kinnear film Dear God. He also wrote and directed the immediately forgettable Matthew Broderick romantic comedy The Night We Never Met.

In 1999, however, Leight the playwright penned the critically acclaimed Side Man, an extended jazz riff about dysfunctional musicians on the New York scene. Its masterful narrative spanned 30 years, while effectively paying tribute both to a time gone by and to Leight's parents--a brilliant but unambitious trumpet player and his increasingly bitter wife (played by a then-unknown Edie Falco).

The play won a Tony and ran on Broadway, but when Leight's follow-up, another play about jazz called Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, tanked, he found it hard to get backing for another.

"Very few theaters are interested in doing new American plays," says Leight, 45, who resembles Dustin Hoffman's bearded, younger, slightly better-looking brother. "In New York, [No Foreigners] is probably sitting on the desk of eight or nine artistic directors. They just can't be bothered."

So, Leight found himself back in Hollywood, pounding the pavement, pitching pet projects and "going insane." Like many before him, he paints the process as an artist's nightmare, calling it "Willy Loman in L.A."

"I've been to meetings in Hollywood where somebody goes to make an artistic suggestion and they apologize in advance," Leight says. "They say, 'Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a whore as anybody in this room'--this is your bona fides--'but I'm just wondering, wouldn't it make more sense if. . . .' By the time it's over, you either haven't sold it and you're like, 'Uh-oh, I'm done,' or you do sell it, and when they get through with it, you're like, 'Oh God, now I have to write that?' It's humiliating."

So when Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who was an early proponent of Side Man's success, approached Leight about commissioning a new work, he jumped at the chance.

"It's not like I was being inundated with other proposals of this nature," he says dryly. "Very few plays get commissioned these days."

Center Stage ponied up $12,000 to commission the work, less than Leight could make in Hollywood, and far less, he points out, than he currently makes for Law & Order. But it enabled him to pursue a story he'd been wanting to tell for almost 20 years.

"I taught English in China in 1980, and the whole time I was there I was writing more than I had ever written before," Leight says. "Journal entries, long letters to The New York Times that were not getting published. When I got back from China, I took them to an agent. He just said, 'China don't sell.' And the box went away. But every time I moved, I took the box with me. It was like that great unwritten novel."

Leight pitched a pair of ideas to Lewis, one of them "pretty flashy." Though he preferred the China story, which is set shortly after the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution, he figured it an unlikely choice, "because it would have to have by definition a lot of Asian actors and very few Caucasian actors, and a lot of theaters would shy away from that."

Fortuitously, Lewis had her own fascination with China, where her father was stationed as a flight navigator in World War II, and she picked the dark horse.

"They were nicely loose about the deadline, so therefore, of course, I didn't start," Leight says, acknowledging that he's a procrastinator. "They would ask me how it was coming along, and I would say fine. But then I got a date for a workshop. . . . I finished the first draft at 6 a.m. the morning of the workshop."

Leight was rewriting scenes as late as the day of this interview, Nov. 6, while simultaneously writing his next script for Law & Order, which will air sometime in February. It's all part of what he jokingly refers to as "The Dick Wolf Scholarship." Though he's never met Wolf personally, Leight calls him "The Medici of the New York theater world."

"Dick Wolf, whoever he is, is keeping the New York theater world alive," Leight says. "Every episode I watch, there are eight or nine actors I've worked with who are picking up a $5,000 paycheck, which keeps them in theater. I have friends in a new Carol Churchill play--they're making $225 a week. That's like carfare money."

Though Leight says he is proud of the new work, he's realistic about its commercial chances. Because of the large Asian cast, "I don't see how this is going to travel to every regional theater in the country," he says. "You can't put Natasha Richardson in it. I can just hear the major New York nonprofits when they realize they can't do a lot of celebrity casting."

Leight has lengthy lamentations about "the fucked-up ghettos that America puts minorities into." His new script is a lesson in that. "The Asian acting community at best is where the black acting community was 30 years ago and Hispanic was 15 years ago," he says. "They're marginalized, even though they're really good actors. Johnny Kwon, one of the guys in the play, for two years all he's been sent out for is delivery boys and gang members. I have African-American friends who say they only get calls for judges and hookers. I have a friend who says she's played more black judges than there are black women judges in America."

In the same way that he has created strong roles for overlooked talent, Leight believes his best work bears witness to times and people who might otherwise be forgotten. Though the plots of Side Man and No Foreigners Beyond This Point literally originate from opposite sides of the planet, "They're both big canvasses," he says. "There's an odd thematic similarity of seemingly unimportant people struggling to survive under difficult situations."

In both cases, too, the character who stands in for Leight is an observer--in Side Man of the crumbling popular jazz scene, in No Foreigners of a people trying to put their lives back together after being crushed by a cruel totalitarian government.

At a time when Americans seem more willing to try to understand the history of the world around them, it's possible Leight has hit upon the right subject matter at the right time.

"You never know," he says with a shrug. "But if you attempt to tap the zeitgeist, you will not."

In the meantime, he will continue to try to balance art and mammon.

"If I'm just doing TV, I kind of go crazy. If I'm just [writing plays], I go broke," he says. "It's all about adjusting the mix. If you get too greedy, you move to L.A. and become one of 'them.' If you get too noble, then you're losing your apartment. It's one of those gas, air, and oil delicate mixes. But at the moment, it's sleep where I'm shy. I think Thanksgiving is the next big stretch of sleep I'll get. But artistically, I couldn't be happier."

No Foreigners Beyond This Point opens Nov. 21 and runs through Dec. 22 at Center Stage. Tickets cost $15 to $45. For more information, visit www.centerstage.org or call (410) 332-0033.

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