It took David Adjmi 10 years to write his new memoir, “Lot Six” (HarperCollins). The last four months were spent ensuring there were no legal issues.
“I never wanted to write a roman à clef but it ended up being that because you can’t use all these names,” the playwright said recently. “I had enough trouble already,” he added, laughing.
Perhaps he was alluding to his satire “3C,” which brought on a legal battle with the copyright holder of the sitcom “Three’s Company.” (Adjmi won the case in 2015.) Or perhaps the reference was to his experience at Juilliard, when he fell on the bad side of a teacher he calls Gloria in the book.
Adjmi’s Off Broadway debut, “Stunning,” in 2009, drew from his childhood in Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish enclave. The book’s title refers to a pricing code for three, an odd number associated with gayness — “as in three-dollar bill,” he said. The stylized, bitingly funny show, and its author’s unorthodox back story, attracted the attention of HarperCollins. Adjmi, now 47, set out to compose essays about his cultural influences, but started sliding toward more personal territory — a move his publisher encouraged.
“They said, ‘You need to make it about how you became a writer,’” he recalled.
Adjmi may be a relatively niche playwright (the memoir ends with the closing of “Stunning”), but his lifelong devotion to art as an identity-defining tool of self-expression gives the book a fervid tone that is hard to resist; his talent for laugh-out-loud funny set pieces does the rest.
He is the same in conversation, pin-balling from raucous laughter to tears, and sending an interviewer to the dictionary to check out what “agon” means (it’s ancient Greek for conflict, naturally).
“David is so witty and he’s also quite precise,” said the actress Cristin Milioti, who counts “Stunning” as one of the best shows she’s ever done. “The way he writes is so rhythmic.”
It’s not a surprise, then, that music features prominently in Adjmi’s new stage projects. These are edited excerpts from the conversation, by FaceTime from Los Angeles.
Your life has not always gone smoothly but the Juilliard period, with the instructor you call Gloria, stands out as a painful low. How did you recover?
To this day, I talk to my peers about that experience and they’re like, “No, she likes you, she cares about you.” I think I was looking for a certain kind of permission, and I had to give myself the authority. Art is a disruption, you’re declaring war in a certain way, you’re telling everybody else, “This is my point of view.”
In the acknowledgments you thank the actress Marian Seldes “for teaching me what it means to be an artist.” What is that?
I wrote “Elective Affinities” for her and she did it at Juilliard. I was asked to leave the program and I sort of had a breakdown. I was blocked, I was very depressed, I just felt so lost. One day the phone rang … I feel like I’m going to cry [pause]. It was her. She said, “I just want you to know that I will always be part of your circle and you will always be part of mine.” [He tears up, composes himself.] She was something for me to latch on to in terms of the idea of the integrity of an artist. She was so gracious and generous to me, and I try to do that for younger artists, to make myself available to them.
You write about your “essential worthlessness as a person.” But it feels as if sometimes that feeling blocks you and sometimes it fuels you.
I had this feeling of displacement from when I was a young kid, and also from being gay in a very homophobic, Republican culture in the 1980s. People think, “Oh, homophobia, whatever,” but it was a very, very intense thing. But then I also felt this endogenous, strangely insistent feeling that I did have worth. I didn’t know if I was delusional or megalomaniacal, I didn’t understand why I felt my voice had any value. That alterity set in motion a series of experiences that gave my life meaning and gave me an advantage that I think is incredibly precious and hard-won.
What was the impact of “Stunning” in your old community?
After I left Juilliard, I was so broken. I thought, “I’m going to write five plays and maybe I’ll just pitch myself off a building or something.” Who would have thought that Lincoln Center was going to put on this violent, stylized, crazy play about Syrian Sephardic Jews? Some of the people [from that community] behaved really badly. The actors would tell me stories of people waiting for them outside of the theater, saying “Are you Jewish?” Or people screaming, “Dyke! Dyke!” That was in the stage manager’s report. It was pretty hard-core.
Your last show in New York was “Marie Antoinette” in 2013. What have you been up to since then?
I’m working on a trilogy about 20th-century American music. One play that’s almost done is called “The Stumble,” about the composer Oscar Levant and his obsession with George Gershwin. Another one, I’m getting the rights to someone who is alive. Then there’s “Stereophonic,” which is done and was supposed to happen on Broadway next spring but I don’t know now. We’ve done workshops with Cristin, so who knows? It’s four-act play with music about a 1970s band making an album, which you’re watching take shape: They’re cutting songs, changing the arrangements, bringing riffs. And then it’s like Chekhov where their lives are falling apart. Will Butler from Arcade Fire is writing the concept album. I’m so excited to show it to people — I’ve worked on it for such a long time and I’m really proud of it.