Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1994

Director Michael Greif is a comeback kid.   The 35 year-old under-known wunderkind is returning to San Diego, where he received an MFA in Directing at UCSD (1985) and was recently named the new artistic director of the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse. Des McAnuff moves on (to other, perhaps filmic, projects) at the end of this season. “It’s a nice way to return,” says the affable Greif (pronounced ‘Grife’).   “I feel I have friends and supporters here.”

He does indeed. Former teachers, classmates and local colleagues eagerly await Greif’s arrival and artistic vision. No wonder; his credentials are impressive. Before coming to UCSD, the Brooklyn native attended Northwestern University, where he was a protégé of Steppenwolf Theatre’s Frank Galati. As a UCSD graduate student, Greif had two additional mentors:   Alan Schneider (renowned director of Albee and Beckett, who died shortly after Greif arrived here) and Des McAnuff (for whom he was assistant director on “Romeo and Juliet”, “Big River” and “As You Like It”, in 1983-1984).

After graduation, Greif went on to direct national and international touring productions of “Big River”. He returned to the Playhouse in 1986, to co-direct “The Three Cuckolds” with rubber-man Bill Irwin, and he won critical acclaim for his quirky, 1992 production of “What the Butler Saw”. In the meantime, he freelanced at regional theaters across the country.

In 1989, Greif’s work was spotted by Joseph Papp, who invited him to be a Director-in-Residence at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre. He was only 31.   He earned mixed reviews at the Public, but garnered two Obie awards and a Drama Desk nomination.   

Greif has been accused of being both intellectual and sentimental in his work. (“Can we say ’emotional’ instead of ‘sentimental?'” he asks hoarsely).   He has admitted to “a populist streak,” and he’s been trying to get a better handle on the local audience, so he can appreciate their theatrical tastes.   But he’s been so busy directing, he just moved here in May.

His summer project is the West coast premiere of a new adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1867 novel, “Thérèse Raquin” (July 10-August 21).   Greif directed a workshop production of the piece last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.    “Thérèse” plays in repertory with a new translation of Marivaux’s eighteenth century comedy, “The Triumph of Love”, directed by Lisa Peterson (through August 14).

“Putting these two plays together compels the audience to see them in relation to each other,” says Greif.   “They share thematic links, especially concerning passion and sexuality. I hope they enhance each other, just as “Marisol” and “The Swan”) did two years ago in rep at the Playhouse.”

“Thérèse Raquin”, an intense love triangle, has been described as a study of crime, punishment and remorse, but to Greif its theme is passion. “This group of poor, drowning people, caught up in a rough world, need this strong, overwhelming passion to survive. The biggest crimes in the play are people condemned to lives of lovelessness.”  

East coast playwright Neal Bell is extremely loyal to its source, says Greif, “but it feels like a very modern piece — as fresh and daring as the novel was — and still is. It jumps location and time like the novel, evokes the same moods and captures the characters. But Neal is less judgmental than Zola, and more generous… A lot of the second act is a ghost story, a haunting.   The murderous actions of the adulterous couple are not dealt with lightly; they get their comeuppance.”

After this production, Greif will turn his attention from the stage to the business office, and the Playhouse’s $1.6 million deficit.   “I need to take an active part in fundraising,” he says understatedly. As for future theatrical seasons at the Playhouse, Greif plans to maintain the current structure, with the emphasis on “eclecticism and diversity… I’d love to continue developing new plays, especially by women and authors of color.    This place has a really healthy history of presenting political plays and a remarkable, rich history of producing new musicals.   I would certainly like to continue that.”

Perhaps Greif is a risk for the Playhouse.   But so was Des McAnuff, 30 years old when he arrived in 1983 to revive the theater. “I think the Board was looking for a young artist,” Greif explains. “They wanted fresh ideas and insights, someone with connections to the next wave of theater activity. They were excited by my colleagues and peers, and my knowledge and access to the emerging theater scene. And I was very impressed with the Board. Despite financial difficulties, they refuse to curtail risk-taking, to make the place more accessible or less challenging. They want to maintain high standards and diverse programs, and keep the theater healthy, strong and unique. That’s impressive. That’s why I’m here.   We’re all pretty jazzed.”

©1994 Patté Productions Inc.