“I only have two speeds: manic and depressive!” shouts the playwright Alan Gross, 62, by way of a greeting. And for the next several hours, he shifts back and forth through both of them with dazzling, entertaining alacrity.
The scene is a Wells Street restaurant where the Second City and Saturday Night Live veteran Tim Kazurinsky is holding a meeting at the front table and an early lunch crowd fills up the rest. But Gross, a large man with a matching personality, doesn’t let the surrounding din dampen his enthusiasm or his volume. “It’s lonely to be a playwright,” he says. “But people think you’re profound. I was a greeting card writer, and people thought I was foolish. I was a copywriter, and people scowled at me. Scowled! When I wrote for newspapers or magazines, people wanted to have a drink with me. Being a playwright is best.”
Gross’s latest play, High Holidays, is scheduled to start previews on the Owen Stage of the Goodman Theatre on October 31st. Billed as a “darkly comic and boisterous look at growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the early 1960s,” the play is loosely based on Gross’s own coming of age in Skokie. With its opening, High Holidays serves as Gross’s reintroduction to the Chicago theatre landscape after nearly two decades. In 1977, the Body Politic Theatre on Lincoln Avenue premiered a play by Gross called Lunching. A yuppie comedy of manners, directed by the veteran actor Mike Nussbaum, Lunching was a huge hit, propelling Gross into a stratosphere of fame, if not fortune. Reviewers compared him to Neil Simon. “It was a funny play, but it also had some bite to it,” remembers Richard Christiansen, the former drama critic at the Chicago Tribune. “It was well written and also well paced and staged by Mike. At the time, Alan’s name as a local playwright was second only to David Mamet’s.”
Eventually Lunching moved to the Drury Lane Theatre in Water Tower Place, becoming one of the first Off-Loop shows to make the transfer to a larger, commercial theatre. After its long run there, Gross had hopes the play would move to Broadway, but efforts to do that bogged down in contract disputes, lawsuits, and conflicting personalities. Gross had other plays produced in Chicago (The Man in 605, La Brea Tar Pits), but he never again succeeded in capturing the large audience he had with Lunching. He also published three children’s books and a number of haiku poems. In 1986, he and his wife, Norma, moved to Los Angeles, where Gross pursued a career in screenwriting. In 2000, he and Norma moved back to Chicago, and for the last four years, Gross has been working on High Holidays, with the encouragement of the Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls.
“Bob once said I was the neediest person he had ever met,” says Gross. “Now that’s going some.” Proving the point, he shouts, “This play will be bigger than Lunching! It will be The Ten Commandments!” Then he drops the shtick for a moment. “After my mother died, I inherited the shards of her life: photos, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks. I started remembering things and collecting anecdotes from others. I could hear my mother’s voice and my father’s, and I could see the furniture in the house and feel the emotions of the time. I was close enough and yet far enough. So I started looking around for a way to bring various things together. And for my mother’s friends, who will be saying, ‘Oh, how could he do this?’ I want to emphasize that all the family roles in the play are really me. Not my mother or my father or my brother—just different aspects of me.”
“High Holidays [which revolves around a 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah] is a fascinating look at how you become a man,” says the director, Steven Robman, who has directed a revival of Lunching in the past. “It is such a leap into another territory for Alan’s writing. There is understanding, insight, and even sympathy for his parent’s generation and their motives. Compare his earlier work to this, and you see the difference between a writer in his 30s and a writer in his 60s. This play is very funny, but with a note of complexity and graciousness. And that is not an easy thing to pull off.”
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Gross grew up in Skokie. As he has always made abundantly clear (including in a cover story for Chicago in 1981), he was unhappy and restless there. He hid in books, reading for hours in the family’s basement, while he waited to be old enough to move away. His father was a retailer, and his mother was a housewife. “Although later, in the 1990s, she pretended she was a career woman,” he says. “A neighborhood newspaper gave her a camera, and she asked people the question of the day. In her mind, she was a cross between Ernie Pyle and Martha Gellhorn. If Franco’s troops had been on Green Bay Road, she would have been on the front lines.”
After graduating from Evanston Township High School and then the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Gross moved to Chicago and pursued a career in advertising. But his dramatic personality always drew him to writing for the theatre. The success of Lunching opened up a whole new world for him: one of recognition, parties, bold-print names, and equally bold ambitions. Over time, though, he started to develop a reputation as a loose cannon. “Big-name producers were asking people straight out, ‘Is Al Gross a pain in the ass? Because I can’t stand another pain-in-the-ass playwright coming in here,’” he says. “Or I’d hear, ‘He’s a troubled genius.’ I don’t know what they were talking about. All I ever did . . .” For the first moment since sitting down at the table, Gross is lost for words. The pause stretches out. “I don’t know what I did,” he finally says.
Eventually, unable to gain much traction on his other plays and disenchanted with the Chicago theatre world, Gross leaped at a chance to work for the famed television producer Norman Lear. Lear’s Embassy Productions had a program in which young playwrights were paid to develop sitcoms. Gross packed up his wife, dog, and bikes and moved to a split-level in the Hollywood Hills. Not long after his first meeting with Lear, he was told that Embassy was closing up shop. Gross was paid what was owed him, but he immediately found himself with no job and no connections in a new city. “You don’t even have to ask me what happened next,” he says. “Just make up the worst shit you can think of, and it won’t be as bad as what happened. There was bad behavior every day—much of it my own. Desperation is a strange thing. You find yourself willing to say yes to people you know you should be saying no to. And saying no to too many people I should have said yes to.”
He was asked to write a movie script about a garbage scow that had nowhere to dock. He was asked to write about superheroes, yet he had hardly read a comic book in his life. He played a lot of golf and ate many wonderful lunches. He also took a lot of meetings, but those didn’t always go so well. “I was giving this famous producer all my pitches, and I thought it went well,” says Gross. “Later I’m told, ‘Well, the project is on but you’re off.’ I couldn’t believe it, so I kept saying, ‘Why? What happened? What did he say? Tell me.’ And I was told the famous producer said, ‘I hope that strange fat man is not coming back to the next meeting.’ And I said, ‘Who the fuck is he talking about?’ I didn’t realize he meant me.”
Gross pitched a plot about stealing art from museums; he proposed a biopic about Frank Lloyd Wright—his wife was working as an administrator for two of Wright’s houses in California. Both were rejected. “It goes on and on. What little joy I bring to a project they weren’t buying. When I was in advertising, being contrary was blessed and rewarded. But that isn’t the way it works in the movie business. I just got old and mean in Los Angeles.”
So now, after all this time and all this energy spent to escape his roots, Gross finds himself returning to them with High Holidays. “Writing this was an emotional experience for me, something that left me dizzy and a bit upset,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it if my mother was still alive. But after her death, I was able to go back and sift through things—both literally and emotionally. There are certainly boisterous moments onstage, with people yelling at each other, but there are also insights and changes. Right now I’m very happy with the play and very happy with the Goodman. Of course, that could turn on a dime. Any bump in the road could take joyous mania and turn it into paranoid depression. But now I’m pleased with it all.”
Gross hopes that High Holidays will not only restore his reputation in the theatre but also provide a springboard for new plays he is working on. “If I want to have a body of work, then I need to keep going. In 32 years, my wife has never said to me, ‘Do something.’ She knows I burn to do it. I’ve played enough golf. I’ve shopped enough—I don’t need any more shirts. Now I just want to work.”
Yet he acknowledges that drive to work still may not be clear to everyone. “My psychiatrist said to me the other day, ‘You’ve taken retirement beautifully.’ I said, ‘I’m not retired. Where have you been for years?’ But he does find me an interesting man. At least I always have something to say.”
Photograph: Ryan Robinson