Philipstown playwright’s new play debuts on Broadway
Invited by a friend in 2015 to see an exhibit of photographs by Larry Sultan at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Sharr White had no idea they would resonate with him so deeply. The Philipstown resident devoted much of the next seven years to planning and writing a three-character play, Pictures from Home, based on Sultan’s work and life.
The three characters are Sultan and his parents, Irv and Jean. Beginning in the early 1980s, Sultan spent a decade photographing, interviewing and writing about his parents and his relationship with them. (He died in 2009.)
White’s play, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein and Zoë Wanamaker, opened this week at Studio 54 and is his third on Broadway, following The Snow Geese and The Other Place. White also writes for television, including episodes of The Affair on Showtime and Halston on Netflix.
Do you often visit photography exhibits? Or was this a case of something that was just meant to be?
I am a museum-goer, for sure, but I don’t know that things are meant to happen. It’s more about keeping my eyes open. I sat on it for two-and-a-half years before clearing my schedule to see if it still resonated. I always tell my wife, Evelyn, what I’m doing, because inevitably it turns into “What’s going to drive me crazy for the next couple of years?” Especially because there’s a world full of ideas that usually aren’t meant to be.
What was your initial reaction to the Sultan exhibit?
I thought immediately that there might be a play in it, but I wasn’t sure how to go about making something inspired by Larry’s work. It became obvious that I needed the photos. I contacted his widow, Kelly, and we had several long phone conversations. Then I went to Northern California to visit her, and it became clear to all.
Did you experiment with structure?
I knew I wanted it to be all presentational, with Larry telling his story. It was also important for Irv and Jean to have competing narratives where they could enlist the audience on their side. I wanted to keep it as free as possible, so that any character could pop through the fourth wall.
What do you think Larry would make of today’s carefully edited
lives on Instagram?
Larry staged a lot of his photographs. I think the question is, are Instagramers looking to expose a version of a truth that says something about their lives? I would say no — it’s about popularity and clicks.
Does writing episodic TV influence your playwriting?
It’s the inverse. My playwriting work influences my TV work. Playwriting is almost always about a three-act structure. My bread-and-butter in the TV world has been as a structuralist, and it’s because of the similarity to a play’s arc.
How did the Broadway production gestate?
There are a couple of models of getting a property to Broadway, and one is trying to have a great production in one of the best off-Broadway houses. The other is an out-of-town tryout with a regional theater production. Honestly, we sent this play to every off-Broadway theater and everyone passed. I don’t think people knew what to do with it; it’s a complicated script. Then, we had an offer from the Alley Theater in Houston for what would have been a superb production, but — COVID. Finally, [producer] Jeff Richards read the play on a Friday, called on a Monday and said, “I want to do it.”
Did you assume you would need at least one bona fide star?
Look, you need to sell tickets. I wake up with anxiety about filling the seats. These exceptional actors are the reason people are buying tickets. What I want to leave is a script that is a roadmap to allow any future production to work. There are exceptionally talented performers who are famous within their regional circle. Watching these [Broadway] actors bring the play to life affirmed the play worked, which is important to me.
If one of your two teenage sons decided to do a version of Larry’s project, examining the family dynamics through an artistic lens, would you embrace it or would you be terrified?
I would embrace it, especially after this. Our family’s life is intimate and I would welcome that discourse, for sure.
At what point did it strike you that you were not only writing a play but continuing Larry’s work?
It only dawned on me that, on some meta-level, staging this was a continuation of the project. Kelly Sultan pointed that out to me. I feel an enormous responsibility, and at the same time, that has to be tempered. I had to remind myself often that this isn’t a biography: It’s my interpretation of Larry’s process interpreting his parents.
Did you get to keep any of the Halston clothing?
Nope, not a stitch.
Studio 54 is located at 254 W. 54th St., between Broadway and Eighth, in New York City. For tickets, see picturesfromhomebroadway.com.