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Second chance: playwright Theresa Rebeck revisits 2000 flop with "The Novelist"

March 22, 2010 |  7:28 am

TheresaRebeckTheresa Rebeck had high hopes at the start of the last decade for her new play, "The Butterfly Collection," but they turned into bitter memories that still rankle.

The family drama about a Nobel Prize-winning novelist with a bad case of writer's block and an even worse personality got its first prominent airing in a staged reading at South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival in the spring of 2000. By fall it was on the boards off-Broadway.

Then the New York Times' reviewer, Bruce Weber, gave it a kiss of death-- not just a pan, but a broadside painting Rebeck as a feminist avenger with no use for men and not much skill as a dramatist. The concluding dagger: "You have to [director Bartlett Sher] managed to get his good work done with the playwright so ready to resent him."

Needless to say, "The Butterfly Collection" never made it back to Southern California, at least not on a stage notable enough to have gotten it reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. The other New York reviews of the 2000 premiere were mixed. Among the major daily newspapers' critics, only Weber remarked on any perceived anti-male agenda in the play.

Rebeck is far from done with that episode, or the play. She has reworked the story of "The Butterfly Collection" and renamed it "The Novelist." The redo was set for two May readings at the Pasadena Playhouse -- until the Playhouse underwent a sudden, drastic revision of its own. When its indefinite shutdown due to fiscal woes was announced in January, artistic director Sheldon Epps had said that an independent grant funding the "Hothouse at the Playhouse" series of new-play readings meant that the program would continue, but a company spokeswoman said Friday that all readings, including "The Novelist," are on hold.

As for Rebeck, nearly 10 years after the fact, she made the New York Times' trashing of "The Butterfly Collection" the centerpiece of her March 15 keynote address at the annual meeting of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York. Her talk's broader point was to decry the long odds female playwrights face in getting their scripts produced. To read it, click here.

Meanwhile, it would be quite a story if "The Novelist" were to fulfill the hopes that a sympathetic critic, Michael Sommers, expressed a decade ago in his review of "The Butterfly Collection" for the Newark Star-Ledger.

"Despite its considerable flaws, Rebeck's work provides interesting glimpses into a troubled family's dynamics, and her portrait of a semi-monstrous literary giant is often compelling.... Perhaps she'll forge a great play out of it someday."

-- Mike Boehm


Text of Theresa Rebeck Laura Pels keynote address

Like father (a writer), like son (an actor), and neither is likable 

Playwrights on writing: She likes to tell stories

Theresa Rebeck, unstoppable theater machine

Pasadena Playhouse still trying to choose a script for getting out of debt

Photo: Theresa Rebeck. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times