Published in The New York Times
Young playwrights dream of having a runaway success like "Proof." David Auburn's drama ran for 917 performances at the Walter Kerr Theater before closing on Jan. 5, 2003, making it the longest-running Broadway play in two decades. "Proof," which originally opened Off Broadway in 2000 at the Manhattan Theater Club and then transferred to Broadway, won the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize. It has been performed from Iceland to the Philippines in more than 30 languages, according to Mr. Auburn's agent, William Craver. The Goodman Theater in Chicago is staging an African-American production beginning Saturday. The film version, which Miramax will release in December, stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, the unstable daughter of a renowned mentally ill University of Chicago mathematician.
Mr. Auburn, 34, now follows that enormous hit with "The Journals of Mihail Sebastian," a one-man portrait of a Holocaust survivor, set in Bucharest from 1935 to 1944. Currently in previews, it opens on Tuesday at the 99-seat Theater at 45th Street.
Right after "Proof," Mr. Auburn wrote a play that didn't quite please him and that he showed only to friends. It now sits in a drawer. In an interview at a coffee shop at Broadway and 85th Street, he declined to reveal the title or subject but said he might return to it eventually.
He was also reticent about the movie version of "Proof." Mr. Auburn wrote the screenplay for Hart Sharp Entertainment, the film's production company. Sometime after Miramax signed on as distributor, it hired Rebecca Miller (daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller) to retool the script.
"I'd sort of not like to talk about it," Mr. Auburn said. "I'm satisfied the way it got resolved." The final version, he said, is "very close to the play." A Miramax spokesman said that the Writers Guild recently ruled that both Mr. Auburn and Ms. Miller will share the screenplay credit.
While one could speculate that "The Journals of Mihail Sebastian" is an attempt to ease back into theater with a low-profile play whose sensitive subject matter ensures a respectful reception, Mr. Auburn would disagree. "It was just the next thing that came along that grabbed me," he said. "Whatever standards you have for yourself, they don't change because your show is a hit or a flop. If anything, I felt less pressure. `Proof' gave me opportunities to try things I normally wouldn't have been able to try."
For example, he could afford to write a play like "Sebastian" for the small Keen Company, whose artistic chief, Carl Forsman, is directing. The two men met in 1996 while teaching in a summer theater program in Houston, and subsequently collaborated on several one-acts. Mr. Auburn said he wanted to return to the sense of "joy and experimentation" he felt at a time "when we had nothing and really knew nothing."
Stephen Kunken, an actor who met Mr. Auburn when they were both students at Juilliard and who played Catherine's suitor Hal in "Proof" on Broadway and on the road, said that Mr. Auburn is "thrilled" by his success, "but it's not as if he went and bought a Bentley."
"I went to his house," said Mr. Kunken, who is portraying Sebastian in Mr. Auburn's current play, "and I'm, like: `Where's the Tony? Where's the Pulitzer?' " ("In a box in a closet," Mr. Auburn said when asked.)
The box has moved — from a tiny apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Mr. Auburn lives with his wife, Frances, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, and their daughter, Rebecca, 18 months.
Like "Proof," much of Mr. Auburn's work has a scholarly tinge to it. His 1997 Off Broadway play, "Skyscraper," was about architecture. He studied the 1930's while writing "Myra Lennox," an original screenplay he is beginning to shop around, about a sheltered young Midwestern woman who falls in love with a man who wants to fight in the Spanish civil war. He went to Romania to research "Sebastian." Mr. Auburn, who grew up in Ohio and Arkansas college towns, was encouraged to read by his father, an English professor. "I'm a writer because I'm a reader," not vice versa, he said.
One day, Mr. Auburn said, he picked up the 628-page published diaries of Mihail Sebastian, a Jewish literary figure in Romania, titled "Journal 1935-1944," read it, and then immediately read it again. "It was a perspective on the war and the Holocaust I had never encountered," said Mr. Auburn, who was brought up a Unitarian; his mother's family was Jewish. "But much more than that, I was captivated by his personality on the page, his humor, his incredibly incisive intelligence and his self-deprecation."
Iosef Hechter's story — Sebastian was a pen name — differs from many Holocaust narratives in that he never set foot in a concentration camp, though he lived in constant fear of being sent to one. Sebastian survived the war, but was hit by a truck in 1945 and died at 37. The diaries, with their undisguised portraits of anti-Semitic Bucharest intellectuals, caused an uproar in Romania when they were published there in 1996.
In adapting the book into a play, Mr. Auburn has used Sebastian's words almost verbatim, he said, piecing the entries together to create a dramatic arc. "As with anybody's life, things happen and expectations build up, then dissipate," Mr. Auburn said. "Having some of those things I thought would be true to the life experience, but you can't afford too many of those in a play."
Or the life of a playwright, for that matter. Mr. Auburn, however, does not seem too worried about expectations.