Matthew Lopez on Writing Reverberation
In Conversation with Elizabeth Williamson
Elizabeth: Let’s start with the quotes you use to preface the play. Why these two?
“Great cities…differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of them is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
“It’s a lonely city…I’m lonely. Aren’t you lonely too?…Maybe we can comfort each other for a night.”
James Baldwin, Another Country, 1960
Matthew: I landed on those after the play was finished. I’d read both books (Another Country multiple times and counting) but I was looking through them over the holidays to refresh my memory before the production and they both stood out to me as perfectly encapsulating the meaning of this play. I’m not the first writer to point this out and I won’t be the last: New York City can be a crushingly lonely place despite its millions of people. It’s a maddening illusion that you never have to be alone in New York if you don’t want to be. The Internet and iPhones have added to this illusion. That is the great allure of Grindr (beyond the obvious ones.) But loneliness, true bedrock loneliness, can never be assuaged merely by company. It requires companionship, which is a different thing entirely. It requires intimacy, which is different than just sex. It requires allowing someone to know you, to make yourself vulnerable enough to be known by someone. Without those things, real loneliness will never go away. That’s the kind of loneliness Baldwin is writing about in that quote. And the reason for it is what Jacobs is describing.
I could just as easily have quoted from Comden and Green’s lyrics to “Lonely Town” or Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People.”
Elizabeth: As you’re sitting down to write a play, what draws you to certain subjects?
Matthew: I can never predict what is going to capture my interest and draw me to create. I think it comes primarily from curiosity. I like to play the “what if” game with subjects. “What if slaves owned by Jewish families adopted that religion?” “What if a family living in the proposed footprint of Lincoln Center in 1959 were completely devoted to Jerome Robbins and his work?” “What if a straight guy became a drag queen?” That leads to the next important question of “why?” And then “who?” And so on.
If you look at my first three plays, The Whipping Man, Somewhere and this play Reverberation, there are no evident connections between them. The first is set in 1865, the second in 1959 and the last in the present. But once I finished Reverberation, I looked back at all three of them and I realized that what they are all about is the idea that the world is dangerous and that it is safer inside. The three men in The Whipping Man are hiding in that destroyed home from the chaos and the danger of Richmond just after the fall of the Confederacy; the family in Somewhere are battened down against the irresistible force of Robert Moses and his willful remaking of the city; the characters in Reverberation see the world as menacing, the city in which they live as unsafe for them, and so they huddle in their apartments, attempting to ward off the dangers of the world together. I jokingly refer to those three plays as my “Agoraphobia Trilogy.”
Elizabeth: What led you to write Reverberation itself?
Matthew: There was no specific incident. It was more like an accumulation of observations and experiences. Being young and single in New York for many years informed much of the writing. Being older and in a relationship informed it as well. Everyone knows what it feels to be lonely, to be afraid they will never find happiness. Everyone understands the need for connection, for intimacy, even if those things ultimately are pretty frightening. Many people, I suspect, have made sexual decisions they regret. Many people, myself included, have experienced great loss, have mourned and have suffered countless broken hearts. This play, ultimately, is a meditation on those feelings.
Elizabeth: The play is set in the present in Astoria, Queens. Why that specific neighborhood?
Matthew: One important factor in selecting that neighborhood was the conscious decision to keep the characters out of Brooklyn, which has become the center of all that is vital in New York. Jonathan, Claire and Wes live outside of that zone of influence. They are on the outskirts.
But more importantly, it’s the neighborhood of my youth in New York. I moved there after college and stayed until I moved to Park Slope in my late 20’s with my boyfriend (who is soon to become my husband). Astoria is where I had all my stupid love affairs with the wrong (and sometimes—temporarily—the right) guys. It’s where I fell in and out of love with the fickleness of a hyperactive teenager. I drank too much. I had no money. Some nights I cried myself to sleep. Other nights I didn’t sleep at all. I mourned 9/11 with my friends in that neighborhood. I never want to be that young again but I’m so grateful that I once was. I was never more aimless, never more uncertain, never more foolish than I was in that neighborhood. And of course I believed I was having the time of my life.