'Treme' and 'On the Verge' -- two sides of Eric Overmyer

Eric Overmyer is a passionate playwright but a reluctant television writer.

In his deepest heart, he would like to say "No, no, no," every time someone waves a proposal for a new TV show in his face. But his loudmouth bank account keeps insisting, "Yes, yes, yes."

This is true even of such quality projects as "Treme," a show about New Orleans residents coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Overmyer created the 10-episode series with Baltimorean David Simon, and it debuts tonight on HBO.

Overmyer, 58, thinks the stage is a much more creative medium than television.

"The difference between writing for TV and for the stage," he says, "is the difference between being an artisan and an artist. Television involves collaborating with so many people. On a show like ‘Treme' or ‘The Wire' or ‘The Sopranos,' the writing is pretty good, but it's still collaborative. It's true that playwriting also involves collaboration, but not as much.

"The only thing that playwriting and television writing really have in common is that they both use actors."

Baltimoreans can judge for themselves; Overmyer's most popular stage play, "On the Verge," opens Wednesday at Rep Stage in Howard County. This production about three time-travelling Victorian ladies is being directed by Jackson Phippin, the same man who shepherded the world premiere of "Verge" at Center Stage in 1985.

"Eric and I tease each other that he's the fallen playwright and I'm the apostate journalist, and here we are being television hacks," says Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. "In truth, and though we have genuine pride in what we're doing, our job description still says ‘television'."

The pair met when both were working on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and resumed with the fourth season of "The Wire." Overmyer and his family have lived part time in New Orleans for 20 years, and the two writers bonded over the bayou city's music scene.

Simon occasionally borrowed the Overmyer home while attending Mardi Gras. After one such visit, a long, pink, silken glove left behind by his wife, the mystery writer Laura Lippman, became part of the Louisiana house's permanent décor.

"David and I have been saying for years, ‘Gee, wouldn't it be nice to do a story set in New Orleans?' " Overmyer says. "We didn't want to do another cop show, particularly, and we thought maybe we should make it about musicians. But we didn't know where to go from there.

"Then in 2005, Katrina hit. I was in Baltimore at the time, and it was really, really upsetting.

"A month or two later, David said, ‘The hurricane might be a way to frame the show.' But it was the last thing I wanted to do. So I said, ‘Not now, let me calm down first.' But David kept talking about it in his low-key, persistent way, and finally, he set up a meeting where we could pitch it to HBO."

For most of the television shows on which Overmyer has worked — "Treme" is the exception, because for the first time, he's not just a writer but the co-creator — he was scribbling to someone else's specifications. He didn't devise the plot or create the characters. He simply put words into their mouths.

"I just wrote an episode for ‘Treme' that will air late in the season," he says.

"But there's only one version of it. There have been hundreds of productions of ‘On the Verge.' Some have been good, some have been bad, and some have been mediocre, but the work itself exists and can be interpreted in different ways. Unlike playwrights, scriptwriters don't own the copyrights on their work. It's just very different."

Overmyer's colleagues describe him as the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. They say he's a terrific colleague, never cross, and lacks even the smallest hint of a diva-style ego. "A sweetheart," is how stage director Phippin puts it.

But beneath that affable exterior lurks a gently contrarian streak. In theory, Overmyer is thrilled that there can be multiple versions of his surreal comedies. In practice, he loathes it.

"I hate going to see productions of my plays," he says. "It's very painful for me. All I do is critique the production. I'll say to myself, ‘I know that line works, but the director or the actor got the timing wrong.' I also see all the things I wish I'd written better."

So he probably won't be flying to Columbia to see "On the Verge," though Pippin is an old and trusted friend. It was Pippin who pulled a 60-minute draft from Center Stage's slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts in the mid-1980s, and immediately recognized its potential.

"I was just amazed by the musicality of the language, by the way it came off the page," he says. "It was so much fun to read. And even now, it makes me happy every time I pull it out. This play has been produced steadily all over the country for the past 25 years, and 25 years from now, it will still be staged."

After "Verge" debuted in 1985, Overmyer premiered several other plays at Center Stage during the next six years. He hasn't worked with the company since 1991, after Phippin left.

"My relationship with Center Stage was very important and productive and fruitful," he says. "When Irene Lewis came in as artistic director, she wanted to bring in her own associates and put her own stamp on the place, which is more than understandable. I have nothing but good memories about my time there."

The Baltimore theater was the ideal laboratory for telling the kind of stories he likes best — fanciful plots with an elevated sense of language and style. He thinks these stories simply don't come alive when viewed through the narrow aperture of a camera lens.

"I'm interested in writing plays that elicit a certain kind of performance from actors that is more theatrical and that isn't suited to a close-up and a microphone," Overmyer says.

He notes that James Magruder, Center Stage's former dramaturge and a local playwright, describes the type of show at which television excels as "‘talking about my problems in your living room."

"I'm not interested in writing that kind of play at all," Overmyer says. "If you're going to do a naturalistic script, get a camera and a microphone and do it properly."

And yet, for all of Overmyer's disdain for so-called "kitchen sink" dramas, Simon says that no one writes more insightfully about home life than does his friend.

"Eric can make two people in a room be human better than almost anyone I've ever worked with," Simon says.

"It sounds like a simple thing, but it's not. People don't talk directly about the issues in front of them. They dart, weave, avoid, snipe and back away, and being able to capture that is a great gift. Eric always joked that I give him the girlie scenes. Me, when things get dicey, I put a gun in someone's hands."

Creating a television show tends to gobble up the lives of everyone involved it, and Phippin, for one, regrets that Overmyer is constantly being pulled away from the live stage.

"The pity is that he hasn't had the chance to continue doing what he does best," he says. "There are those of us who mourn his loss to the theater."

Overmyer wouldn't consider himself lost. It's more as though he's been rerouted. His destination remains crystal clear in his own mind, and as it happens, he's working on a play script right now. He's mum about the details, saying only that it will be set in New Orleans.

"Once I get an image of my main characters on a stage, I can start writing," he says."They begin speaking to me, and then I find out who they are and where they're going, and what kind of language they use. Sometimes, it takes time for the image to materialize. Until then, I'm not out of the weeds."

Nevermind that "Treme" is a strong candidate for renewal. Nevermind that if the series returns for several seasons, Overmyer will be living New Orleans, breathing New Orleans, thinking about New Orleans 24/7 for the foreseeable future.

"It's taken me 20 years to start writing about New Orleans," he says, "I'm just starting to catch a glimmer of the city."

And no show for the small screen — not even one as comprehensive, ambitious and sophisticated as "Treme" — can exhaust everything that Eric Overmyer still has to say.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go
"On the Verge" runs at Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, from Wednesday through May 10. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. $18-30. Call 410-772-4900 or go to
http://www.repstage.org

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