February 18, 2020

Playwright Jessica Goldberg’s ‘Better’: When misery begets art

Almost five years ago, playwright Jessica Goldberg traveled back to her hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., to visit her 65-year-old father, who was in hospice, dying from brain cancer in the family’s home.  One day she bid him goodbye as she set off on what she thought would be a short sojourn to New York City. “He kind of smiled; he couldn’t do much more than that,” the 40-year-old playwright recalled during an interview at her home in Silver Lake. “But by the time I reached New York, my mother called to say that he had died.”

Throughout her father’s illness and until his death, Goldberg’s marriage to the actor and playwright Hamish Linklater had been on the rocks. In the following year, “We broke up,” she said. “So it was just like a double whammy, a train wreck.” 

Afterward, Goldberg recalled, “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. Luckily, I had a young daughter, so I had to get up out of bed and make lunch. But working was the one thing I could do. I wrote like crazy; I just became a workaholic. That became my refuge.”

Jessica Goldberg

Goldberg — the author of seven produced plays and recipient of prestigious awards, including the 1999 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize — poured all of her angst into “Better,” a play that will have its world premiere in a production of the Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre on Oct. 4.  The story revolves around Annie, a successful restaurateur, who returns to her childhood home to visit her dying father even as her own marriage is in its death throes.  There, she frenetically cooks her grandmother’s Russian-Jewish recipes — an attempt to dispel her grief — and both bonds and spars with her mother, who is shell shocked at the prospect of losing her husband. Among the other characters are Annie’s old high-school flame, Frank, who feels trapped in his life working as a contractor and still living in his hometown; Frank’s bitter ex-wife, Missy; and Annie’s brother, John, a personal trainer who remains in deep denial about their father’s impending death.

The play explores entering life’s second act once the first has imploded, said Goldberg, a soft-spoken, petite brunette with soulful brown eyes. “Suddenly, parents and marriages are dying, and you realize your youthful dreams have been replaced by practical realities. It’s about how we rage against that, perhaps by sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be sleeping with. And finally accepting life’s gains along with life’s [pain], holding both realities at the same time.”

It’s a concept Goldberg learned while navigating her own personal tragedies and also during a course of Jungian psychotherapy: “Jung was a great believer in the embracing of loss,” she said. “Somehow I feel that because I really wallowed in my grief, I have come out OK.”

Goldberg grew up in a secular Jewish home. Both her parents ran their own “left-of-the-dial” record stores; she was surrounded by artists and musicians and played with the children of members of The Band. “But in those days, Woodstock had a very dark edge,” she said. “Everyone was doing a lot of drugs; people would die of overdoses, or there would be a terrible drunk-driving accident.” When Goldberg was in seventh grade, Richard Manuel, a member of The Band, committed suicide.  

Then there was the bias she faced as one of the few Jewish students at her high school, where classmates called her “Jewberg.”  

“Woodstock was a haunted place, and it haunted me,” she said.

And so, after she graduated from New York University’s dramatic writing program and the Juilliard School, her early work often featured young adult characters in distress or in the throes of addiction: “The Hologram Theory” revolves around a circle of New York club kids who eventually commit a murder; “Good Thing” spotlights drugged-out youths who turn to their troubled former high-school counselor for help; and “Refuge” features four teenagers who must fend for themselves after their parents abandon them.

In the mid-2000s, Goldberg explored her Jewish identity in “Katzman and the Mayor,” which tells of a non-religious family that must come to grips with its heritage after a patriarch’s grave is defaced by anti-Semitic vandalism. “If you’re a secular Jew, but people identify you as Jewish, you can’t help but one day want to explore your history,” she said of writing the play.  

“Better” represents a departure, of sorts, for the author. “The themes are more grown-up, with a different kind of angst,” she said. “It’s about trying to come to terms with your life and create meaning for yourself.”

These days, Goldberg said, she is attempting to focus on the present while dispelling concerns about the future. At times, she wonders whether she will ever find another life partner, and whether she might “age out” of the television business, where she has made the bulk of her living in recent years in the writers’ room of shows such as NBC’s “Parenthood.” “I’ve got to work as much as I can in this coming decade,” she said.

Yet, all in all, Goldberg said, “I’m blown away by my life and my luck, and I’m very grateful.” She has a precocious 7-year-old daughter, a friendly relationship with her ex-husband, a new TV pilot in development with Hulu and has recently written a film, “Alex of Venice,” spotlighting an attorney who must rebuild her life after her husband (Chris Messina) suddenly abandons her.  

Even so, Goldberg finds it painful to watch portions of  “Better”: “There are just scenes I find really sad because of a lot of the things I went through,” she said.  “Like when Annie goes into her father’s room and asks of his [impending death]: ‘Is this really going to happen?’ 

“But I do feel very much settled now,” she added.

 

For tickets and information, call (310) 307-3753 or visit EchoTheaterCompany.com.