When J.D. Salinger first published “The Catcher in the Rye,” many readers saw themselves in the young and dissatisfied narrator, Holden Caulfield. Some of these readers were harmless, angsty teenagers; others were not so harmless. A number of famous murderers have identified with Caulfield or seem to have drawn some inspiration from the work. Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon in 1980, even wanted to legally change his name to Holden Caulfield.
“The Catcher in the Rye” catapulted Salinger to fame, but it also cost him his privacy — and often his mental health.
Written by NYU alumnus Claude Solnik and directed by Joe John Battista, “A Life in the Rye” takes audiences back in time on a journey through Salinger’s life and examines the ongoing controversy surrounding “The Catcher in the Rye” and its narrator. Chapman (Harry Bainbridge) even makes an appearance on stage.
After Solnik studied playwriting in the Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he went on to enjoy a successful career in journalism, reporting for several New York City publications. He won a 2019 Folio Award for Public Service Journalism and six awards from the New York Associated Press since 2015.
But his love for playwriting persisted. “A Life in the Rye” is his 16th work to premiere at Theater for the New City. “The only reason the play got done is this theater,” Solnik told WSN.
He was inspired to write “A Life in the Rye” after an audience member at a previous production suggested it would be a good idea to write a play about Salinger. For Solnik, it made perfect sense. He had written biographical plays before and felt that Salinger’s life was fit for the stage.
“This is not about Catcher in the Rye. This is about the person who wrote Catcher in the Rye, and the price that I think he paid,” Solnik said. “He became a celebrity in a way that I don’t think any writer had been before […] Sometimes people live through their work and then their own life kind of gets lost.”
He chose to have two different actors play Salinger simultaneously, one as the young Salinger (Willem Long) and the other as the adult Salinger (Tom Martin), to show the toll his life in the spotlight took on him. What Salinger endured after the4 1951 release of “The Catcher in the Rye” made him question if he should have written the book at all.
The blackbox theater is transformed into a dazzling, multimedia experience, as a fog machine rolls in at particularly dramatic moments and a rhythmic drum beat, played by Bainbridge, builds tension throughout the work.
Solnik said that the cast was strategically chosen to give balance to the work. While Martin maintained a serious expression and formal tone as adult Salinger, Chris Johnson stood on chairs and danced around the room as he played a series of five different critics.
Though Solnik doesn’t identify with Caulfield, as so many young men before him have, he does see some parallels between Salinger and himself.
“I think people who write frequently have certain characteristics […] The way I portrayed him is my understanding of him, but it’s also my understanding on writing and myself too,” he said.
“A Life in the Rye” is running at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., through Nov. 24.
Email Dani Herrera at [email protected]