The playwright Theresa Rebeck has two plays opening in New York this fall: “Bernhardt/Hamlet” and “Downstairs.”CreditCreditHeather Sten for The New York Times
Sarah Bernhardt ran her own theater. Correction: She owned her own theater, which she also ran. It had a dressing room that was actually five rooms, with a marble fireplace. Writers like Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand lined up to create new works for her. And if Bernhardt preferred to perform a classic, she could put on tights and play Hamlet for an audience of 1,700.
This was in 1899.
Flash forward to the writers’ room of a television series, where Theresa Rebeck — who has consistently toggled between theater and TV for the last 30 years — was one of two women present. A male colleague was suggesting a plot point in a coming episode. “Two people walk into a bar,” he said. “No, wait. Two people and a woman walk into a bar.”
This was in 2015.
Can you blame Ms. Rebeck for wanting to spend a bit of time in the imperious, world-beating presence of the Divine Sarah?
And so she has trained her love for robust storytelling and her fondness for strong women on Bernhardt’s protracted mission to make sense of Hamlet. The result, the playful but pointed “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” opens Sept. 25 at the American Airlines Theater, starring Janet McTeer in both title roles.
“It’s no surprise that this landed on my head,” Ms. Rebeck said of the project, which she had been mulling for the last decade. “Sarah was startlingly capable of commanding attention and doing things that nobody thought could be done.”
All the same, she stressed, “this isn’t agitprop.”
“This is a story about a mighty woman for whom I have a lot of respect,” she said.
Even by her pedal-to-the-metal standards, Ms. Rebeck, 60, is commanding a lot of attention right now. “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a Roundabout Theater Company production now in previews, comes on the heels of “Seared,” an art-vs.-commerce look at the Brooklyn restaurant scene that ran to acclaim at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
Yet another newish work, the bracingly creepy family drama “Downstairs,” starts rehearsals in October at Primary Stages. The independent film “Trouble,” which Ms. Rebeck wrote and directed, opens Oct. 5 in New York and Los Angeles. And her new TV pilot, a Gamergate-themed comedy called “It’s a Man’s World” that she describes as “a reverse ‘Tootsie,’” begins filming this fall for YouTube Premium.
“I’ve put in my 10,000 hours,” she said during a break in “Bernhardt/Hamlet” rehearsals, alluding to the much-cited road to mastery that Malcolm Gladwell described in his book “Outliers.” “And I’m very curious about what my instrument can do at this point.”
That number seems low. “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” “Seared” and “Downstairs” are among some two dozen full-length plays she has written, including three others that have reached Broadway since 2007: “Mauritius,” “Seminar” and “Dead Accounts.” In addition, Ms. Rebeck has written three novels and the alternately soothing and scathing writing primer “Free Fire Zone.”
And this doesn’t even touch upon her Hollywood experience, which includes screenplays ranging from “Harriet the Spy” to “Catwoman.” (Up next is the Jessica Chastain/Lupita Nyong’o espionage drama “355,” which became the talk of this year’s Cannes Film Festival when Universal Pictures bought the rights.) Her TV credits go even deeper, running the gamut from an award-winning run on “NYPD Blue” to blink-and-you-missed-them efforts like “Maximum Bob.”
One more recent television stint was a lot harder to miss: a tempestuous turn as the creator and showrunner of the Broadway-themed “Smash,” from which she was fired after one season. As much as any event in her 30-year career, the dismissal is held up by many of her peers as Exhibit A of the difficulties that women face in entertainment.
Six years later, Ms. Rebeck’s shoulders still tensed at the mention of the series.
“I think it was a mistake,” she said quietly of her “Smash” experience. “I was proud of that show.” (She went into much more detail about it in an essay for the 2017 book “Double Bind: Women on Ambition,” where she also recounted the above anecdote about the toxic atmosphere on another TV show, which she declined to name.)
All those years in television have turned Ms. Rebeck — who has a 16-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son with her husband, the former stage manager Jess Lynn — into a fast writer and even faster rewriter.
“I do a lot of world premieres, and I’m used to playwrights pondering and coming back the next day with a few tweaks or a few lines,” said the “Downstairs” director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who has worked with Ms. Rebeck many times. “Theresa comes back the next day with a whole scene.”
Ms. Rebeck said this quickness stemmed from her ability to go into what she called “character head.” In other words, she can enter each of her creations’ brains and come up with character-specific dialogue on the fly, a process she says has been compared to channeling.
(Oh, but you probably won’t be able to get into Ms. Rebeck’s head during rehearsals. She has a habit of wearing sunglasses, much like a competitive poker player. “I just don’t want people to always see what I’m thinking,” she said. “My face is too reactive, and I prefer to have my privacy. Plus, I think they’re nice sunglasses.”)
Each of these four new works relies heavily on recognizable characters (even when they’re legendary theatrical figures like Bernhardt and Rostand, the “Cyrano de Bergerac” playwright and her purported collaborator/lover) behaving in recognizable ways (even when they’re shooting their own brother in the arm, which Anjelica Huston does to Bill Pullman in “Trouble”).
Tyne Daly, who stars in “Downstairs” alongside her brother, Tim Daly, fears that Ms. Rebeck’s facility for narrative has somewhat obscured her gifts. “She’s skillful in a way that I don’t think gets enough credit,” Ms. Daly said. “She has learned how to construct, how to build — and how to surprise and delight along the way.”
But there’s another force at work in her plays: a mix of high moral standards and empathy. Looking to fictional characters for insight into their creator’s psyche can be risky, but a line from Irene, the stultified housewife played by Ms. Daly in “Downstairs,” feels unusually apt.
“When you look at things with compassion,” Irene says, “they don’t seem so terrible, really.”
The playwright Tina Howe believes that Ms. Rebeck’s Catholic upbringing — she went to church six days a week as a child in Cincinnati — has had a profound imprint on her work. “There’s a moral heart to Theresa,” said Ms. Howe, a longtime colleague and moviegoing pal. “She’s a force of nature who always carries her altar with her.”
But Ms. Rebeck, who wrote about Victorian melodrama for her Ph.D. dissertation at Brandeis, questions the idea that her plays have a polemical streak. “Somebody came up to me after ‘Seared’ and said, ‘Don’t you come down on the side of capitalism?’ I don’t come down on the side of anybody or anything. I don’t think you make arguments in plays. I think you tell stories.”
Her television background may have honed her ability to tell a story through character, but her success in Los Angeles — at a time before every playwright with a flair for naturalism eyed a gig there — arguably did her few favors in theater circles. Like virtually everyone interviewed for this piece, Ms. Daly believes that sexism also affected the reception of her work.
“She should be revered, and she is not,” Ms. Daly said. “She is resisted. And the resistance comes when you’re not a member of the penis club.”
Ms. Rebeck is more circumspect about what she feels is a gap between her work and the way it is received. “Earlier in my career, I would get, ‘Oh, she’s a feminist,’ with kind of a nasty spin to it,” she said. But she feels this is only part of the equation.
There’s also the fact that she is a Midwesterner. “People in the Midwest feel morally superior to people on the coasts, and people on the coasts feel intellectually superior to people in the Midwest,” she said. “And intellectual superiority is, de facto, moral superiority.”
Perhaps even more than her success writing for television, her plays have the gall to resonate for the people sitting next to, in front of and (mostly) behind the critics. “Mauritius” and “Bad Dates” are among her works that have made American Theater magazine’s annual list of the most produced plays nationwide.
“I can’t help but wonder if the fact that audiences like my plays is held against me,” she said. “Some people don’t like the word ‘accessible’ anymore. Why?” After all, Sarah Bernhardt — who had those 1,700 seats to fill on a nightly basis — couldn’t afford to be precious about her art, a subject explored in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.”
But for whatever reason or reasons, plenty of critics have had plenty to say about plenty of Ms. Rebeck’s works. And the sheer number of those works has also earned its share of scorn.
“We all remember that vicious review she received in The New York Times for ‘The Butterfly Collection,’” Ms. Howe said. “She called me up sobbing and said, ‘How do I deal with this sort of thing?’” Ms. Rebeck described the aftermath in vivid detail — albeit without naming the play or critic — in “Free Fire Zone.” It is as sobering a reminder as you will find that reviews have professional and personal consequences.
Still, the intervening years have been vindicating ones for Ms. Rebeck as well as for her causes. Anjelica Huston, the co-star of “Trouble,” first worked with her on that troubled first season of “Smash.”
“Things have changed considerably for women in just the few years since then, and I think her experience might be a lot different now,” Ms. Huston said.
In addition to cofounding the Lilly Awards in 2010 to honor women in theater, Ms. Rebeck recently invited to her Park Slope brownstone the members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group for female playwrights over the age of 40.
“It feels like the fruits of a lot of people’s hard work are going to a younger generation,” she said. “And that’s great, and women are good sports in general, but there’s a lost generation out there.”
Despite her success, those years of condescension and worse are never far away. Just as she uses that “character head” to know intuitively what her characters will say and do next, Ms. Rebeck has no problem revisiting the prejudices of a different era, prejudices that muffled and contorted and at times snuffed out her own voice.
“I’m in a good spot now,” she said. “But I try not to forget that younger self and what she went through. It was really painful sometimes. I admire the sturdiness of her. And so I don’t want to forget her.”