On the Money 

A fast-paced conversation with John Patrick Shanley, the playwright behind Firehouse's next show.

In Richmond, the Firehouse Theatre Project has chosen this opportune time to produce "Where's My Money?" — a show Shanley wrote four years ago — as its season opener. "Money" is a bitterly funny tale of two marriages, full of snappy dialogue and unsympathetic characters. Shanley answered questions about "Doubt," "Money," love and ghosts from his Brooklyn home.

Style: Why do you think "Doubt" has been so successful?

Shanley: I think it's because there are real issues vibrating through our society having to do with faith and organized religion and accountability. There is a lack of real public discourse and a lack of room for uncertainty. I think this is a real problem. We have to realize that doubt is the province of the wise, not the weak.

With "Doubt" and the HBO film "Live From Baghdad," you have moved from personal stories into a more sociopolitical realm. Is this a conscious trend?

My stated ambition was that, in the first half of my career, I would be working out my own problems. And then, in the second half, I would be turning my view out toward the rest of the world, knowing that I was largely centered and feeling like I had a perspective to offer. [Recently] that perspective has come more to the forefront.

But I'm not writing from a position of advocacy. I'm not going to say, "I'm a Democrat and I know you're a Democrat, and I'm verifying what you believe." I want people to leave [one of my plays] saying, "I don't know what the hell I am." The standard categories have been exploded, and we need to reinvent the wheel here. The political vessels we have to choose from are no longer sufficient to satisfy mature, thinking adults.

A ghost plays an important role in "Where's My Money?" Is this a real ghost or a reflection of someone's subconscious?

If you've ever been involved with somebody, you know they have been involved with other people; they are like their ghosts. And you are going to have to deal with those ghosts. If you are a dramatist, you have to find a way to put those ghosts on stage in a tangible way.

"Where's My Money?" has a pretty cynical view of love and marriage. Does this mirror your view?

No play represents everything about life or anything, really, and this play actually has a pretty happy ending. But the journey to get there is pretty rough. I was interested in doing a play about divorce lawyers, about what goes on in the homes of these people and the cynicism they must feel. If that's your subject, you are going to start in a pretty dark place, you know, because they only show up when things are going badly.

Some of your earlier works, like "Moonstruck," are pretty romantic. Has your material grown darker over time?

We all have the illusion that we've grown a great deal. But most people are basically the same from when they are 5 years old. "Moonstruck" is all about death. There's not three minutes in a row where someone doesn't mention death. In order to have a romantic connection, you have to come to terms with the finite nature of life itself. That's part of the poignancy of sharing your life with someone.

I'm not a fan of the institution of love, but I'm an enthusiast of the combustion of love. It's something that happens in the present tense. There are longer-term associations you have that have an appearance of endlessness. But they're all finite. You're born alone and you're going to die alone, and for a time, if you're lucky, you'll have company. S

"Where's My Money?" opens at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., Sept. 8. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the door or reserved by calling 355-2001.

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