“A Kreutzer Sonata”: Interview with Playwright Larry Rinkel

A Kreutzer Sonata
"A Kreutzer Sonata” is a new full-length play by Long Island playwright Larry Rinkel that is scheduled to be performed at the BACCA theater this December.

“A Kreutzer Sonata” is a new full-length play by Long Island playwright Larry Rinkel that is scheduled to be performed at the BACCA theater this December. The play focuses on David Lindenbaum, a freshman Jewish piano major who finds himself in a conflicted relationship with Elena Gorecki. A beautiful but volatile violinist, Elena is scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with David yet she is unwilling to take his religious beliefs seriously. Along the way he must also deal with a lovable but crass roommate, his no-nonsense piano teacher, his doctrinaire mother, and his apparently cold and distant father. The piece asks: can this Modern Orthodox Jewish student find a way to survive in the secular world?

Before turning to playwriting full-time, Larry Rinkel taught college English in New Jersey and later worked as a technical writer. A lifelong devotee of art, theatre, film, and classical music, he has had work produced across the United States. His full-length “A Kreutzer Sonata” was awarded Best Play at the Secret Theatre’s 2017 UNFringed Festival, and his other produced plays include adaptations from Chaucer and Dante, a farce about gender-blind casting in Shakespeare, another farce that takes place in a Chinese restaurant, several romantic comedies, and a few one-minute plays including a very cute one about Chopin’s Minute Waltz.

Larry recently discussed his plays via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for writing and why did you decide to focus on playwriting in particular?

A Kreutzer Sonata
The cast of “A Kreutzer Sonata.”

Larry Rinkel (LR): I think I can trace my love for language from being read to at a young age by my father, literate classics like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Winnie the Pooh.” Somehow out of all the literary genres, drama and theater have always appealed to me the most, more than fiction or poetry. Maybe it’s because a play is over in 2-3 hours while it takes 2-3 weeks to read “War and Peace”!

MM: How did you get your start in the theater industry?

LR: From time to time, I had tinkered with writing plays and around 1990 I came up with a sitcom pilot called “Floppy Disks” about life in the software industry, but I never did anything with it. Besides, though I loved the title, nobody uses floppy disks anymore. Many years later, around 2007, I wanted to create a debate about the culture wars in contemporary classical music (where I had been extensively trained in my younger days), and it dawned on me that this was a good topic for a play about a classical station facing financial pressures. It took me until 2016 and dozens of drafts to get the play in shape, and now it’s undergoing yet another overhaul as the result of my greater experience with theater.

MM: What inspires your plays and have you any particular favorite pieces?

LR: I am inspired in numerous ways. Sometimes it will be a personal event, like the Chinese lunches I went with co-workers every Thursday, which inspired my restaurant farce “Peas in the Fried Rice.” Sometimes it will be a prompt from a theater, as when one competition asked for a play set in a library and I wrote “Brian’s Poems,” which takes place in the library of the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and commemorates a deceased high school classmate. A prompt from a theater for a play based on the month of January inspired “The Fable of January and May,” my modern-verse farce based on Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” which in turn became one of six adaptations from “The Canterbury Tales.”

MM: How did you come up with the plot and characters for “A Kreutzer Sonata” and what was it like to see it win an award?

LR: Though I was born Jewish, I have not been observant most of my life but a few years ago came to know some millennial friends in the theatre who were very strictly Jewish. The issue of how a devoutly Jewish person could integrate his faith with survival in the modern world seemed to me an interesting topic for drama. And since classical music is an area where many Jews have made important contributions, I created David Lindenbaum, a Jewish piano student, and put him in conflict with Elena Gorecki, a fiery and hedonistic violinist, Avram Lindenbaum his apostate father, Rebekah Lindenbaum his doctrinaire mother, and Terry Michaels his irreverent roommate. As for the award, it was a surprise considering we had sold fewer tickets than some other plays in the festival, but we got the highest ratings. And while it’s nice to win an award, it’s not exactly a Tony or a big competition like the Samuel French or Lark. But I’ll take it all the same!

MM: What’s your favorite scene and dialogue in the piece and why do they stand out to you so much?

LR: My favorite scene occurs late in the play and takes place by a mischievous coincidence of the calendar on erev Chanukah (that is, sundown before Chanukah), erev Shabbat, and Christmas Eve. Here five of the six characters gather at David’s house and work out their various struggles with each other — boy vs. girl, mother vs. father, parent vs. child, Jew vs. Christian – and at the end young David takes charge to become the adult in the room and peacemaker. This is the central and longest scene in the play, the only one with almost the entire cast, and it occurred to me to add it only after the first production. But the scene practically wrote itself with almost no need for revision.

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from this play in particular?

LR: When writing a work about a strongly religious central character, a key challenge is to avoid the suggestion of preachiness. If I have succeeded in this respect, it is because the play does not take sides in preferring one character over another. The play suggests that it is as valid to live a devoutly Jewish life (as does David), as it is to break with the faith and live secularly (as does his father Avram), or even to pursue a totally physical, hedonistic existence (as do his classmates Terry and Elena). The challenge for David in particular is to remain true to his faith while finding his place in the modern secular world.

MM: You also have a new one act play called “Just One” so what inspired that piece and what’s your favorite thing about it?

LR: I have written several dozen short (10-15 minute, and even a few 1-minute) plays, as these are far easier to get produced than full-length plays. “Just One” was intended as a satire on the art world, where a struggling would-be artist (who drives a hearse for a living) tries to sell “just one” painting to an exclusive gallery, with an unexpected result. My favorite thing is the ending. Just what is the wealthy elderly collector trying to convey with her Mona Lisa-like final gesture? I couldn’t say myself.

MM: What has been the highlight of your writing career thus far?

LR: One highlight was at Midwest Dramatists Conference earlier this year, a reading of my short play “A Semicolon is a Double” which is about two high-school boys (a nerd and a jock) who break through mutual suspicion to find their love for each other. This was the first play I ever had presented in public (in 2015), and has had several productions since, twice winning small cash awards. At Midwest I was delighted that one of the actors told me this was one of the two plays he most enjoyed reading at the conference, and the play has now had 14 recommendations on New Play Exchange.

MM: What topics haven’t you yet tackled via plays but want to in the future?

LR: I have several large-scale projects in mind for which I have written detailed synopses, but have not yet fleshed out in dialogue. One is a drama about two rival twin brothers, one an artist and the other a composer, a father who committed suicide, and their domineering and draconian mother. The composer, who is the greater talent of the two, is betrayed by his mother and gives up composing to become a pediatrician, while the artist whose talent is mediocre has secretly preserved all the music his twin has sought to destroy.

A Kreutzer Sonata
“A Kreutzer Sonata” playwright Larry Rinkel.

Another major project is called “Noelle’s Arc,” subtitled “an apocalyptic farce about the end of the world.” Set on the 100th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks when the earth has become uninhabitable due to climate change, the play concerns a small band of survivors who are planning an escape to Mars when a cataclysmic hurricane is predicted for 8:45 on the morning of 9/11/2101. But their spacecraft is low on fuel – until who comes on scene but the 95-year-old Barron Trump, obese and nearly blind, who has the needed supply of fuel but insists on traveling along on the already overburdened ship! (Can I name my character Barron Trump without risking defamation?)

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and what’s your biggest goal right now?

LR: I am next meeting with a director to explore a production of my full-length “Canterbury Sextet,” which is a group of modern-verse adaptations of six of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” all set within a framing narrative. These stories are alternately bawdy, tragic, romantic, and playful, and have gotten very encouraging responses from workshops and performances of some of the individual tales. We don’t yet have a theater, but we’re planning a reading of the whole play, which was a semi-finalist at the B Street Festival of New Comedies in Sacramento this year, and which challenges a group of six actors to play a total of 36 parts.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

LR: Above all, I want people to see “A Kreutzer Sonata” and support new work by a Long Island playwright. There is certainly a thriving theater scene on Long Island, with dozens of small and large companies stretching the 90 miles from Floral Park to Sag Harbor. But most of what gets produced on Long Island are revivals, and much of the new work is found in short-play festivals (where I myself have presented on several occasions). I am very grateful to Modern Theatre Classics of Lindenhurst and especially Jim Black for taking a chance on this new play and playwright.

I am even more grateful to the dedication and creativity shown by my director, Tim Oriani, a recent Adelphi graduate who portrayed the lead character of David Lindenbaum in the play’s first two productions at Manhattan Repertory Theatre and later The Secret Theatre. Now that Tim is directing, he is exhibiting a fresh viewpoint that will make the play come alive again even for those who have seen our previous productions. Our cast too — Will Ketter, Kasia Walczak, Isaac Conner, Melinda Graham, Gabe Calleja, and Rosemary Kurtz — is completely new and shows enormous talent. Please put this one — which playwright Doug DeVita has called “a wonderful coming of age story, at once both contemporary and ageless,” and producer Yaakov Bressler has described as “a relevant work questioning how all people and specifically Jews balance their beliefs with participating in the modern world” — on your calendar. You’ll be glad you did.

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Performance dates are December 12, 14, and 15. To learn more about Larry Rinkel, see his Facebook page and profile on New Play Exchange. To purchase tickets for the show, see here: https://modernclassicstheatre.com/