Playwright Theresa Rebeck Doubles Down With Two New Shows On and Off Broadway

Rebeck talks about the two new plays she's brought to New York: 'Dig' and 'I Need That.'

Greg Keller, Jeffrey Bean and Andrea Syglowski (from left) in Dig. Justin Swader

In 2007, in The New York Times, Theresa Rebeck revealed the secret ingredients of all her plays: “Betrayal and treason and poor behavior. A lot of poor behavior.”

Sixteen years later, those elements are present and accounted for, boiling and bubbling, in both of the new plays that Rebeck has just brought to New York. I Need That—Rebeck’s Broadway entry, which opens Nov. 2 at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater—concerns an obsessive pack rat lost in his own possessions. And in Dig, which Primary Stages is presenting at Off-Broadway’s 59 East 59 Theaters, the poor behavior centers around the anguished fallout that follows the death of a young child left by a forgetful parent in the backseat of an overheated car. 

“I feel the characters here have landed in a very sorrowful place,” Rebeck tells Observer. Andrea Syglowski, a newcomer out of Juilliard, does most of the heavy-lifting in this play as the bereaved mother. “We’ve really done a lot of work on her sorrow and rage in the second act. I’m always like, ‘Let’s see some blood on the floor.’ I don’t know how she could not go there, and Andrea could not figure out how not to either. In Act Two, we’ve tried to rein it in a bit.

“I think all my actors in Dig are extraordinary,” she beams. This includes Mary Bacon, Greg Keller, David Mason and Triney Sandoval. “I always want to tip my hat to Jeffrey Bean, a Houston actor who is really wonderful as the proprietor who runs the plant shop.”

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has two shows this season, one Off Broadway and one On Broadway. Cleo Lynn

If Rebeck takes pride in those performances, it may be because she directed them—her first two-hat trick (writing/directing) in New York. Despite her divided duties, you probably won’t see her zipping back and forth from Midtown East to Midtown West. Her work on Dig is done now—“frozen,” as they say—“and we did so many workshops on I Need That they don’t really need me over there. They’re blocking it already.  For the first week or so, they’re just going to be crawling all over the set. They don’t need me to show up and then go, ‘No no no, that’s all wrong.’ Right now, I’m just ‘the word designer.’”

In I Need That, Danny DeVito is “a clutter person” (as Rebeck puts it) who, under threat of eviction, must separate his treasures from his trash. It marks DeVito’s return to Broadway following his 2017 triumph as the used-furniture dealer in Arthur Miller’s The Price.

I Need That is not the first time that more than one Rebeck opus has shown up in a single season. “It’s kinda where the chips fall,” she shrugs. “Theaters are always juggling a lot of different schedules. I find it challenging. I wrote Dig in 2016, and we ended up doing it at the Dorset Theater. Originally, we were meant to do it here when we came out of the pandemic. Some theaters, when they came out of the pandemic, honored all their previous commitments, and some decided that was not something they were able to do. Primary Stages were very rigorous about saying, ‘We can do this play, and we’re going to do it,’ but then they too had some Covid wobbles, and this production kept getting bumped later. Now, here it is.

“The same thing happened with I Need That because of the Roundabout schedule. When these plays landed at last, overlapping a bit, I didn’t want to be the person who made a problem.”

Rebeck—who is one of the most prolific (and most produced!) female playwrights in the country—has no problem when two of her plays arrive at the same time, because she never repeats herself in her work. The milieu is always different. Poor behavior knows no single home.

In Dig it plays out in a plant-and-flower shop called Dig. How did she get so knee-deep in plants and flowers and all the strange nomenclature that go with them? Turns out, by marriage. Her husband, Jess Lynn—“not so much now but for many, many years”—was a really serious plant person. He has a green thumb, and, for a little while, he worked with his friend, Chuck. Both of them are passionate about plants, and I became fascinated by how magically they worked. They began their own plants and flowers business and called it Dig. This play is named after that.”

She’s equally well-referenced for the I Need That character. “I know lots of people like that,” she says, not necessarily braggingly. “It’s about somebody who lives in a house that’s got too much stuff in it. He’s not really a hoarder so much as he’s a clutter person, and he has to figure out how to clean up that house because the fire department is going to have him evicted. Also, it’s a little about someone who is aging and living alone and could be a danger to himself. The very first step for him is to let go of things, and this is something he just doesn’t want to do.”

She points with some pride that I Need That is “my 21st professional production in New York and my fifth production on Broadway.” Be that as it may, it hasn’t “cured” her of playwriting. 

There’s a new play in the works right now. Where, you have to ask, did this idea come from?

It came from Cincinnati. “I’m from Cincinnati, and the Cincinnati Playhouse asked me to write a play for their really beautiful new theater. I said, ‘But, of course.’ And I really like the guy who runs that place, Blake Robinson. Blake and I got together recently and started talking about what the play should be, and we came up with some good ideas—one of which I’m using.”

One thing, for sure: being a Theresa Rebeck play, it will be a brand-new idea.

Tickets for ‘Dig’ are available here, and tickets for ‘I Need That’ are available here

Playwright Theresa Rebeck Doubles Down With Two New Shows On and Off Broadway