by Sheryl Flatow
When playwright Lyle Kessler was a teenager, he was so involved in what he describes as “the science fiction fandom world,” that he published an amateur science fiction magazine. “I was always interested in writing,” he says. After seeing Elia Kazan’s film East of Eden , he also became interested in acting. In his early 20s, Kessler starred opposite Bruce Dern in the Philadelphia premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot . “It was transformative for me; I just felt like Waiting for Godot was in my bones. I love Beckett and his plays.”
With hindsight comes insight: decades later, it’s easy to see how these formative experiences influenced Kessler’s work, including his world premiere play House on Fire , directed by William Hayes, which runs through December 30. Beckett’s experimental plays established a new kind of theatre that went beyond naturalism. For Beckett, it was what came to be called Theatre of the Absurd. For Kessler, it’s magic realism, which heightens reality with elements of surrealism – not a great leap for someone who had once immersed himself in science fiction. “That’s a wonderful analogy,” he says. “I think that’s what happened. I never had a plan where I said, ‘I’m going to do magic realism.’ It just turned out that way because I had an affinity to it.” 
Kessler says that most of his plays are about “family, and the extreme emotions of a family pushed to the edge.” That’s certainly true of House on Fire , a moving and funny parable of love, resentment, and redemption. Colman returns home after a self-imposed, decade-long absence upon learning from his brother, Dale, of their father’s death. Despite the presence of the Old Man’s lifeless body, Colman is not convinced he’s actually gone. Before long, all three men are battling for dominance. Then two uninvited guests arrive, and lives are changed forever. 
House on Fire is set in Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Kessler’s hometown. “Most of the plays I write end up in Philadelphia,” he says. “I escaped from there when I was 18, and I keep saying I don’t want to go back to Philly. But somehow, I do. I guess you have to go back to your roots because that’s what feeds you. But I don’t write plays that are autobiographical in nature: I only wrote one play that came close to that. All my other plays are really magic realism. They come from my imagination. The characters are real and have an emotional core, but they’re not based on real people. They’re conglomerations of inner issues in my psyche. All the plays I write are about identity, and most of them have to do with inner emotional issues and conflicts that I’m not aware of in my conscious mind. They’re unconscious issues and I’m trying to work them out in the plays.”

Still, there are aspects of House on Fire that connect to Kessler’s life. Baseball is integral to the play, and it was also an important part of his relationship with his dad. “My father played baseball, I played baseball, and when I was a kid, he would take me to see the Philadelphia Athletics,” says Kessler. “The history of baseball in my family and our passion for baseball is personified by the father in the play.” In fact, Kessler’s father told him about Hugh Ignatius Daily, a pitcher whose story is discussed in the play. And though he’s quick to distance the overbearing character of the Old Man from his dad, he concedes that “a lot of my father went into him. My father was larger than life. The character is not my father, but I see that energy that my father had as a baseball playing guy.” 
Rob Donohoe, Hamish Allan-Headley, and Taylor Anthony Miller
Georgia Warner and
Christopher Kelly
Rob Donohoe and
Hamish Allan-Headley
Kessler, whose 1983 play Orphans has earned international acclaim, has distinguished himself in virtually all aspects of theatre. Following his performance in Waiting for Godot , he wound up at the Actors Studio in New York where he studied with the legendary Lee Strasberg; in 2001, he played Strasberg in the TV biopic James Dean starring James Franco and directed by Mark Rydell. He believes that being an actor helps his playwriting. “I think it circumvents struggling with material to see what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Because I was an actor, I know characters and I know actors and what they need. When I write dialogue, it’s dialogue that actors will love. Whether a play works or not, the characters are really strong and actable.”

His other commitments, particularly to his writing, have limited his work as an actor but Kessler has not retired from performing. “I never said, ‘Okay, now I’m going to stop and be a writer.’ I love acting and I don’t think you ever stop; I just really don’t have the time for it. But if [Martin] Scorsese offered me a role, I wouldn’t turn it down.”

Kessler is also a renowned teacher, who was for many years director of The Actors Studio West Playwright/Directors Unit ­­and currently serves in that capacity at The Actors Studio East. In addition, he runs the Lyle Kessler Theater Workshop in New York, a weekly, four-hour session in which actors work on contemporary and classic material, and contribute to the development of new work. “We have wonderful actors who come in and participate, including Alec Baldwin, Malcolm McDowell, and Chazz Palminteri,” says Kessler. “The class is very exciting. Sometimes writers come in with ne­­w material, and directors come in and observe. A lot of people have gotten work, and plays have come out of the classes. It’s great for me because it keeps me very active.”  

Not that he seems to have any down time. Following House on Fire , Kessler has another world premiere, entitled Perp , being produced Off-Broadway by The Barrow Group in March. He says that his plays usually start with two characters in conflict, and that he never knows where that will lead him. “I don’t know what the conflict is at first, but they’re going back and forth,” he says. “Sometimes it develops into a full-length play, sometimes it dissipates. House on Fire began with the two brothers in conflict about the dead father and the issues between them. And then the play evolved. Sometimes you just get lucky.” 
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