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How playwright Dan O'Brien turned decades of family turmoil into his newest work

Tim Cummings, left, and Brian Henderson star in Dan O'Brien's newest play,
Tim Cummings, left, and Brian Henderson star in Dan O'Brien's newest play, "The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage."
Courtesy of Boston Court Performing Arts Center
Tim Cummings, left, and Brian Henderson star in Dan O'Brien's newest play,
(L-R) Actors Brian Henderson and Tim Cumming star in Dan O'Brien's new play, "The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage."
Christine Anatone/Boston Court Performing Arts Center

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If your family members had gone decades without speaking to each other, how would you handle it?

Playwright Dan O'Brien turned his extended family's turmoil into a new one-act play. Titled "The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage," O'Brien's newest work follows his travels — both emotional and journalistic — through his family's troubled history.

(Tim Cummings, left, and Brian Henderson star in Dan O'Brien's play, "The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage." Photo courtesy of Boston Court Performing Arts Center)

It's a clan where parents don’t speak to their children for years at a time, and questions as seemingly simple as paternity become a Gordian knot of deceptions and dissembling. Watching "Scarsdale" is like going to a family reunion that you really want to leave, but only after you get to see a big fight.

"Scarsdale" is the second part of a trilogy by O'Brien. The first part, “The Body of an American,” won several coveted awards, including the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play.

When O'Brien joined John Horn at The Frame studio, he talked about how he approaches his life's events for material, how "Scarsdale" blurs the line between play and oral history, and how his quest for reconciliation turned into a mission to find his real father.

Interview Highlights:

Someone once said, and I'm probably paraphrasing here, that being a successful writer usually means exploiting the worst moments of your life. Does that sound familiar and useful?

That sounds fair. I mean, exploit is a bit of a harsh term, but yeah, you've got to write about what you're going through, what life throws at you. I had a moment in New York a little over a year ago after another play of mine, where an audience member asked, "Well, are you happy now?" That play had lots of anguish in it. And I said, "Yeah, I think I am." And then a few weeks later I was diagnosed with colon cancer. [laughs]

I think life tends to always give you something to deal with. I have no evidence of disease right now, I feel great, but I'm writing about that now, so I don't know if that's exploiting, if that's self-therapy, but it's been fundamental to how I've thought about writing since I was a kid. You have to write about the challenges that you face.

That sounds more like Nora Ephron, [the idea] that everything is copy and that, as you react to an event in your life, I suspect the first five reactions are [variations of] "How do I get through this, what do I do," and the sixth reaction is, "Is there a story in this?"

Yeah, yeah. Part of it is just trying to maintain a normal life through [cancer] treatment, because that was about nine months, and the idea of not writing for nine months didn't make sense. Maybe a different writer would want an escape, to write about something that has nothing to do with what they're going through, but that's not the way I look at it.

Maybe it's pretentious, but I think Henry James said that a novelist is someone upon whom nothing is ever lost, or something like that. Many things are lost upon me, for sure, but I do think it's the business of a writer to write about their experience. [laughs]

(Brian Henderson, left, and Tim Cummings star in Dan O'Brien's play, "The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage." Photo courtesy of Boston Court Performing Arts Center)

Since we're throwing around so many writing aphorisms, I guess another iteration of Write about what you know is Write about what you're trying to find out. So, in watching this play, I was struck by one question: Did your research become the play? At what point were they indivisible, what was the precipitating event that sent you down this road to find out more about your family?

Early on I knew I wanted to dramatize the actual interviews — the play's structured around these interviews with estranged family members, some of whom I hadn't spoken to in 20, 30 years — even 35 in one case. And those interactions were just so interesting to me, they were so fraught and uncomfortable and awkward, and full of revelations and mystery. The play's written in blank verse, so I wanted to find what was poetic in those moments, but I also wanted to work with transcripts, notes, recordings, and almost approach it as a journalist might.

The crux of the play is that you're trying to figure out a basic question: Who is your father? When did that question drive this quest, when did that become something important?

In a more conventional play, I probably would've lied and made it a thunderclap moment, an epiphany like, Oh my god, maybe my dad's brother could be my father! I tried to dramatize the way it happened in reality, which was a sort of gradual accretion of what seemed like circumstantial evidence, while at the same time I was aware that it could be a fantasy of my own that was developing. But I was interested in that as an artist and as a human being — why we're susceptible to delusions and fantasies, why we need and want easy answers to complex questions.

And the easy answer for me, at some point early on, was, What if everything that was messed up about my childhood could be explained by one secret: that my father's younger brother, a guy who disappeared a few years after I was born, could have been my actual father? That's the big secret that I pursue throughout the play, and in real terms it means I was actually trying to find my uncle.

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