Strings Attached: Back From Retirement, Richard Foreman Brings His Ontological Hysteria, and Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, to the Public

The reasons for snap decisions like this are generally obscure, but Mr. Eustis said that, if pressed, Mr. Foreman could always give a practical explanation, usually having to do with where he wants the audience’s eye to land. Ask him about his work and Mr. Foreman will talk instead about visual artists, mostly Édouard Manet, whom he called “the greatest painter.” Manet would paint a single picture as many as 40 times before he understood what he actually wanted.

“I’ve been doing this for what, 45 years or something?” Mr. Foreman said. “And every time, it’s like reinventing the wheel. I forget what works for me and I’ve got to slowly find it again, because I find myself falling into the traps of doing what I know theater is, and it takes me time to realize—No! That’s what I’ve always seen, and I don’t like theater. I want to do something else.”

Because Mr. Foreman’s scripts are so obtuse, it’s natural for actors to overcompensate with undue emotion. Stripping down their performances is his main role as a director. During rehearsal last month, he gave notes like:

“Could you make that less weighty, philosophical?”

“Rocco—don’t fill it with significance.”

“No, no—it’s too heavy. Just—without thinking.”

“Do anything you can to make it more hysterical.”

His concern is not naturalism, but composition. As Mr. Sisto, who speaks with a wonderful Jeffrey Tambor baritone, explained it, “Richard abhors emotion on the stage.”

“The theater is Richard’s paintbox, and we’re his paint,” he said. “Did you ever watch The Outer Limits, where they say, ‘We control the vertical, we control the horizontal’? That’s Richard. He’s the outer limits.”

Mr. Sisto plays Samuel, the play’s ostensible main character, an everyman figure whose fevered quests have been the subject of many Foreman plays. In Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, Samuel comes to a vaguely Parisian party in search of a courtesan who has stolen his heart. Whether or not he finds her is not quite the point.

Appearing alongside Mr. Sisto is Alenka Kraigher, who finds Mr. Foreman’s complete control “kind of liberating.” Normally, she and her fellow actors would be working to get so comfortable with their characters that the dialogue can flow naturally and unexpected things can happen on stage. Mr. Foreman is trying to get to that same place from the outside in.

“He’s all the time trying to recenter you, to throw you off,” she said. “I think he likes it most when you’re not very sure of what you’re doing.”

If his actors don’t know what they’re doing, Mr. Foreman can empathize. He often doesn’t either. For decades, the opening of his annual play was preceded, like clockwork, by an extreme crisis of confidence.

“Within the last week of rehearsals,” he said, “I would call up my managers and say, ‘You’re going to laugh at me because I’ve done this before, but look. We can’t invite critics to this play, it’s so awful.’ And then I go home and I don’t sleep and I get some idea that changes everything for me and it works.”

The disappearance of those last-minute panics, which only stopped three or four years ago, is one of the reasons he took time off from the theater. Mimi Johnson, who has managed Mr. Foreman since 1972 said that intellectualism aside, he has a strong head for business—you can’t produce a play a year without one—and cares about selling tickets. “He may be a strange man,” she said, “but he’s just like the rest of us. He wants you to all show up for the party.”

This is a central tension within Mr. Foreman—although his work is designed to make keep an audience off-balance, he wants very much for the theater to be full.

“Some people get sort of angry,” he said. “Some people think that’s what I want to do, to upset them. That’s the last thing I want to do! Wouldn’t that be a stupid thing to do for 40 years?”

Strings Attached: Back From Retirement, Richard Foreman Brings His Ontological Hysteria, and <em>Old-Fashioned Prostitutes</em>, to the Public