What exactly is novelist Tawni O’Dell’s Pay the Writer about? (Spoiler alert: it’s definitely not the title, a throwaway line that come late in the play.) Ostensibly, it is about the relationship between novelist Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada) and his agent Bruston Fischer (Bryan Batt). They met in their 20s, when Bruston was a junior editor at Random House and Cyrus was fresh out of Vietnam and hawking his debut novel. A half-century later, Cyrus is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a staple of American literature syllabi, the most significant Black writer of the century with the possible exception of Toni Morrison. And Bruston has been by his side the entire way. “It’s the longest relationship either one of us has ever had,” Bruston beams.
We understand why when we meet Lana (Marcia Cross), Cyrus’s first wife (of four) and the mother of his children (Danielle J. Summons and Garrett Turner). Canada and Cross convey their mutual hostility (undergirded by a red-hot attraction) in scenes that are fiery and raw. They pick at each other’s emotional scabs, revealing the flowing blood beneath. And in Canada’s peevishly compelling aura, we get a solid impression of Cyrus as a volatile genius, so dedicated to his art that he regularly neglected everything else, including the people closest to him. Terminally ill and approaching death, Cyrus must now author an appropriate ending to his extraordinary life.