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Pulitzer winner David Auburn develops new play the O’Neill

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published July 26. 2013 4:00AM

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center is wrapping up this year's National Playwrights Conference with a new play by Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn.

He is developing "Lost Lake" at the O'Neill. Part of the conference process is staging public readings of these plays, and "Lost Lake's" readings are tonight and Saturday.

Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for his 2000 drama "Proof," in which a 25-year-old woman grapples with the recent death of her father, a math genius touched by mental illness.

Last year, Auburn's play "The Columnist" ran on Broadway, with John Lithgow in the starring role. It's based on a real person - political columnist Joseph Alsop - who exerted great influence in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1900s.

Among Auburn's other credits, he wrote and directed the 2007 film "The Girl in the Park," starring Sigourney Weaver.

And he's done more stage directing recently, helming a production of Tennessee Williams' "Period of Adjustment" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the world premiere of Michael Weller's "Side Effects" starring Joely Richardson at MCC Theater.

Auburn had worked with National Playwrights Conference Artistic Director Wendy C. Goldberg before, on a production of "Proof" in Washington, D.C. She invited him to be a guest artist at this summer's O'Neill conference. He accepted and, he says, "It's been a really happy experience."

Auburn describes "Lost Lake," which is a two-character, contemporary piece:

"It's set in a little, tiny summer cabin that gets rented by a women who's come up from New York City with her kids. She starts to have these encounters with the owner of the cabin, who is an older man who is lurking around the place and is friendly but seems to be having trouble letting go of the place. So they have a tense, sometimes comic renter/landlord relationship for this week. We eventually learn more about each of them and learn more about the crisis in each of their lives that has brought them here.

"In a way, it's about a woman who gets dragged kicking and screaming into someone else's problems. But it goes both ways. It's about strangers with problems and how they can or cannot help each other with them."

Asked what inspired "Lost Lake" - if, perhaps, he ever had his own landlord situations - Auburn replies:

"The geography of the play is sort of familiar to me. I've been in these sort of dilapidated rental situations sometimes. Mostly, I started with this idea of someone who gets dragged kicking and screaming into someone else's world of problems. Where the limits of compassion are, where the limits of practicality are, self-interest - those kinds of things were on my mind when I started working on it."

Comparing "Lost Lake" to his other works:

"I think the tone is in some ways similar to other stuff I've written. It's a drama with comedy or comedy with dark currents running through it.

"Sometimes, a play is a reaction to the last play you wrote, so 'The Columnist' was a big history play that spanned many years and had locations all over the world. This is a much more intimate, quiet, fictional two-hander. It felt good going into that after the experience of 'The Columnist.'"

Auburn discusses what aspects of "Lost Lake" he is focusing on at the O'Neill:

"I came up here having a lot of questions about how things were working. It's just sitting with the actors every day, you have new ideas, you discover things you have that aren't working, you feel more confident about things that are working that can be expanded. So the play just starts to breathe a little bit in the rehearsal room.

"The longer I do this, the more I realize how essential a workshop process like this is. You hope that, with experience, you get better at solving everything at your desk, but there's just something about the nature of playwriting that thrives on having a lot of people in the room forcing you to hear the play in certain ways you wouldn't hear without them."

For the past half-dozen years, Auburn has been doing some directing as well as writing:

"This is a nice coincidence because, after I leave here, at the end of the week, I'm going to go to the Berkshire Theatre Festival and direct a Eugene O'Neill play, 'Anna Christie.' ... I had never been to the Monte Cristo Cottage, so getting to come here the week before I start working on O'Neill and being in O'Neill's house was a real bonus."

IF YOU GO

What: David Auburn's "Lost Lake"

When: 7:15 tonight and 8:15 p.m. Saturday

Where: Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Tickets: $28

Contact: (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org

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