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Richard Dresser concludes happiness trilogy at CATF

July 06, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

· Click here for a schedule of Contemporary American Theater Festival performances.

When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, American playwright Richard Dresser thinks some people get caught up in the pursuit.

"We are preoccupied by it," said Dresser in a recent phone interview. "Americans spend so much time working, but what is this ride we are on? Where is it leading?"

Dresser offers some of his final thoughts on what it truly means to be happy in his play, "A View of the Harbor," the third in his trilogy on the theme of what Americans do to find happiness. "View" will make its world premiere Wednesday night at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. It will be the ninth time one of Dresser's plays will be performed here.

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"I wanted to take a step back and examine what it's like for others. ... It just seems there are a lot of people who are successful, but they aren't truly happy," Dresser said.

"A View of the Harbor" is about a man from a well-to-do family in Maine who is finding it hard to live up to the expectations of the upper class. For the main character, happiness lies outside the constraints of his family's social rank, Dresser said.

The irony, Dresser said, is that the characters from the prior two plays, "Augusta" and "The Pursuit of Happiness," which focus on the working and middle classes, are doggedly going after the same thing the main character from "View" is trying to reject.

"In each play, people were trying to escape the reality that they were born into," Dresser said.

Dresser has been growing a friendship with Ed Herendeen ever since his play, "Below the Belt," was staged at CATF in 1997. "We immediately connected," Herendeen said.

Herendeen said Dresser didn't have to make much of a pitch when he came up with the idea of doing a trilogy on happiness. Both "Augusta" and "The Pursuit of Happiness" were staged at CATF.

"I said we will produce all three of them without having read the script of the first play," Herendeen said.

Dresser began as a radio broadcaster who occasionally wrote short stories, though with little success. He only took one theater class, only because he needed it to fulfill an academic requirement in college. That was when he was first introduced to writing dialogue. You could say it was love at first write.

"It was like this creative spark went off," Dresser said.

He started writing plays and eventually abandoned his dreams of being a broadcast journalist, but he didn't abandon broadcast media, altogether. He still writes screenplays and does some writing for TV.

For "View," Herendeen said Dresser took a more literary approach, focusing most of his creative energy on relationships between the characters and creating scenarios for them. He decided on Maine for the setting because he had spent some time there and found the extremes of wealth and poverty created a charged environment.

He said he didn't take the easy route by writing "A View of the Harbor" as a comedic satire. That, he said, had been done before. Instead, he wanted to create a viewing experience that felt like an "uncomfortable trip."

"It is not a reassuring play that tells you what to think," he said. "It's risky because it's a piercing look at this twisted, dysfunctional upper-class family."

Dresser said his latest project is a musical, "Red Sox Nation," about the team's 80-year curse associated with the trading of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Dresser said this play suggests that the real curse stemmed from the team's being the last in the major leagues to put a black player on the roster.

Dresser said venues like CATF, where playwrights can produce serious, original work, is dwindling.

"I don't think the climate is ever good for new plays," Dresser said.

Now, regional theaters wait for a play to be validated in New York before showing it, partly because new plays pose financial risks.

"Let's face it: Some hit, some don't," Dresser said.

But Dresser said he's up for the challenge. His philosophy is that there's no point in playing it safe.

"You really need to give people something they can't get on TV or at the movie theater," Dresser said, "because you're charging them more money, you're forcing them to get a sitter, you're asking them to sit in the dark - you have to put some meat on the bones."

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