Shooting the Breeze with Playwright Owen Dunne

published in Focus on the Coast magazine

Twelve years ago Owen Dunne put his dream on hold to support his young family. At forty, he began writing again, penning four new plays in three years, including Positions, a dark comedy which ran for five weeks last spring at Linda Lavin’s Red Barn Theater before producer Steve Bakunas whisked it away to an off-Broadway theater near Times Square.

When I visited Owen’s home in Sunset Park, his daughter had just beaten him in a game of backgammon on the porch. After leading her and his two sons inside, we talked about cocktails, Eugene O'Neill, and the visiting writer who inspired him to drop out of graduate school in San Francisco.

Owen with Izzy in 2013
photo: Jason Armond

How did your play Positions do in New York?

“With only three characters and two set changes, it was easy for Steve [Bakunas] to throw the set in a truck and fly the actors up. The only issue was that he wanted me to rewrite it, something all writers face: someone dangles a bone before you and says ‘if you do this, I’ll do this for you,’ so I made the changes and we turned it into a family vacation.”

How significant were the changes?

He wanted me to tie it up. My philosophy about endings is that they are really just another beginning. The play ended where it naturally ended for me as a writer. I wanted people to laugh at sex, at their own sexual needs, and at what they saw as the familiar and where it can lead. He really loved it, but I honestly don’t think the New York version was as good. A lot of the darkness had been taken out. Then again I guess it’s nice to have a play in New York and get shitty reviews, then not to have one there at all.     

Tell me a little about your ten year hiatus?

My first play had just been produced by the Druid Theater Company in Ireland at the time when we first started having kids, and I distinctly remember going from having a good job but still having time to write in the morning, to all-of-a-sudden that morning time was gone. And then writing for me went to the back burner. I told myself, You can’t do this right now. You’ve gone the family option, which is great. So now I’ve begun picking up where I left off. I’m 43 now and I’d rather be on my deathbed saying that I failed at what I wanted to do, but at least I tried.

What’s your newest work about?

I realized I’ve condensed my time. Some people like to drink espresso in the morning because it’s a short little hit, so I noticed I’ve veered toward poetry in the summer.

My latest play, Dinosaurs, is about a retired couple’s son bringing his new girlfriend home for the first time after joining her religious compound. Steve Vernon is going to stage a reading at the Cape Fear Playhouse later this year. Again, there’s some issues with the ending. It’s always the ending, never the beginning. I feel like since my eight years in the South I’ve been burned up in many different ways: physically, emotionally. The South has always been an attractive place for me because of the writers, but it’s a cruel and violent place. The weather is so intense–heat, tornadoes, hurricanes–and it’s so vibrant–I think that’s part of the psychosis of the South. And now its metamorphosized into limiting women’s rights and going against the working class people. It’s interesting to me, and as I was finishing my play, I started to think about it in free verse and written about ten poems about my relationship with different aspects of the South as an outsider.

Sounds to me like you’re going to have the best of both worlds soon.

That’s the journey you’re on. You have to take it. My favorite writer, Eugene O'Neill, led such a sad life. People talk about Bukowski writing about drunks and whores; that’s what O’Neill did. He’s the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize, but his father, a pretty famous actor in his time, was also a drunk and morphine addict. So he grew up in this really dysfunctional environment and ended up writing about drunks, hookers, longshoremen–all of stuff that really hadn’t been touched before in the vernacular of working class people. His most famous play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, was written in his will not to be published until twenty-five years after his death. His widow waited a year and it won a Pulitzer, but he had a very sad life. His brother committed suicide. His son committed suicide. He was married multiple times. He had no relationship with his daughter. At eighteen she married Charlie Chaplin who was then in his fifties and O'Neill disowned her. I’m lucky to have my family. And this will be the first year all three kids will be in school, so I’m finally about to get my mornings back.