Musing on Nevada from Salt Lake City, novelist, playwright and casino design consultant David Kranes is the neighbor who knows us better than we do.
Author David Kranes is drawn to dream spaces, so naturally he writes often about Nevada — its casinos, its nowhere towns, its gamblers, magicians, hit men. “The world of reverie is my world,” the inveterate daydreamer says from his longtime home in Salt Lake City. “Often I find myself in some liminal space between real world and dream world. I like the ‘this-is-strange-but-it-could-happen’ space of narrative. I like myth, parable.” No surprise, then, that the Silver State and the West figure so prominently in his work. He quotes Open Theater founder Joseph Chaikin: “I want to drive a wedge into your dreams.”
Nevada hammered a lasting wedge into Kranes the first time he crossed Utah’s salt flats on a snowy evening and pulled into Wendover. In an instant, he’d gone from the most puritanical state in America to the chiming, neon world of the Stateline Hotel & Casino. Gambling houses, he once told the Salt Lake Tribune, are “full of compressed drama; sometimes chilling, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes quite wonderful.” Even after three decades in the region, teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno, he remains fascinated by border towns such as Wendover and Jackpot, which he calls “larval dream spaces. No one wants to stay in such places. But you have to start dreaming somewhere.”
From such dreams, disjunctions and touches of grit, Kranes has crafted an impressive body of work: seven books (including Low Tide in the Desert, a collection of Nevada stories), four film scripts, one opera libretto, 14 produced plays (including one titled Nevada, and Cantrell, about a contract killer in Las Vegas) and innumerable short stories published in venues ranging from Esquire to Alaska Quarterly. His 2009 novel The National Tree was filmed for the Hallmark Channel. His latest book is The Legend’s Daughter (Torrey House Press, $13.95), a collection of short stories set in Idaho and featuring a thinly veiled — and not entirely flattering — portrayal of Robert Redford, whom Kranes met during his 14 years directing the Sundance Playwrights Lab. (While there he mentored Angels In America, Kentucky Cycle and other major works.)
At least since the years of Manifest Destiny, the West has been the object of America’s national imagination. The frontier may be closed, but that imperative to dream hasn’t waned, even as it has often become surreal. The Nevadans Kranes writes about frequently seem to be trying to escape or to pursue a chimera — a treasure ship buried in the desert sand, or a ghost car rampaging through the back country. It’s why fiction guru Gordon Lish calls Kranes “our poet of dread.” Better yet is novelist Mary Sojourner’s description of his work: “Grit-scoured magic,” with none of the contemporary “MFA drabness and pushing too hard to be edgy.” Humana New Play Festival founder Jon Jory told online publication 15 Bytes that Kranes “is without a doubt the best American playwright you haven’t read yet.”
‘Doorways to anywhere’
Kranes was born in 1937 into a Boston family that was “tight and filled with expectation” that its children would be brilliant and renowned in medicine, economics and the law — not the arts. Kranes briefly studied law before chucking it in favor of graduate degrees in the arts: a masters in English from New York University in 1962, followed by a doctorate from the Yale Drama School. In 1967, he accepted a professorship at the University of Utah. The West beckoned because it “was open, new, expansive.”
But 46 years later, much of the region, and especially Nevada, has changed irrevocably, the “liminal spaces” that fired his imagination surrendering to the relentless march of the new West.
“With casino resorts everywhere, these towns aren’t the doorways to anywhere,” Kranes says. “Their nowhere-ness is too naked.” No longer are they the “dream of the larger fantasy of (Vegas) … filled with a sad-though-touching pathos, dreamers with impotent dreams of winning — including the dealers and performers.”
By contrast, the Idaho settings of The Legend’s Daughter tend to have a sense of destination and permanence, despite being entirely rural and often rough-hewn. It’s where Kranes’ characters go to either confront their destiny or their adversaries (who often turn out to be the face in the mirror). Of the non-fictive Redford — whose double inhabits these stories — Kranes says, “(He’s) a complicated man — not a secret. But, in a curious way, he’s very insecure, which leads to his doing things which diminish one’s respect. He can be careless with people.” In Kranes’ fiction, the famous and the ordinary don’t mix well. “The intentions of would-be, marginal artists such as myself get confused by having contact with ‘famous’ figures.” In such short stories as “The Warren Beatty Project” and “Painting Bryant Gumbel,” a workaday artist gets “employed” by the famous figure. The results, in both cases are confusing and semi-disastrous. “Any lesson about seeking fame is clear,” he says.
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‘Delight in the world’
Kranes is what used to be called “a man of many parts.” In addition to his literary endeavors, he has — ever since a 1991 presentation in Lake Tahoe landed him a consulting gig with Grand Casinos — advised various clients on casino design. Circus Circus, Fitzgerald’s, Rainforest Cafe, among others.
“I’m always on the lookout for people who bring something to the table that we haven’t been thinking about,” says his current employer, Raving Consulting President Dennis Conrad. “You could tell this guy knew about space and had studied it.” Indeed, he was for a time the in-house critic for Casino Executive magazine. His opinions could be scathing, although the only F grade he ever issued went to the Maxim — which went belly-up soon thereafter.
“A well-designed casino supports the human impulse to play, and it offers rewards in one way or another,” says Kranes. “A bad casino design disregards and impedes these qualities. There is, psychologically and anthropologically, an impulse to play in all cultures. It’s through play that we most expand ourselves (and) find delight in the world.”
Not surprisingly, concepts such as a sense of “delight in the world” can be a tough sell in the big-money world of resort development.
“Most think he’s crazy and doesn’t have a connection to the industry,” says Conrad. “And too bad for them. He opens up thinking on how to make their place more profitable and enjoyable … how to make the player stay and play longer, and feel good about it. (Casino technology entrepreneur) John Acres is trying to create iPad gaming where you put it in bars. Kranes was thinking of that before anybody.”
Canadian gamers, on the other hand, embrace him. “(They) like Kranes because Kranes speaks to a way to take their money that’s pretty mellow, pleasurable and enjoyable. They’ve brought him in to see which kind of environments are ones that deter problem gambling. That’s where he’s gotten a bit of traction.”
However much Kranes may believe in myth, dreams and play, it doesn’t translate into a love of Las Vegas — considered by many a realm devoted to those attributes, but to Kranes a story whose end is clear.
“The fairy tale is crumbling, losing credibility,” he says. “The storyteller has tried to put too much into the story” — Ferris wheels, roller coasters, topless pools. “The more one piles on, the more pages one writes, the more the notion of play becomes illegitimized.” As with some of the dwindling, middle-of-nowhere places he writes about, Kranes thinks, somewhat improbably, Las Vegas is destined to become a ghost town. “My sense is CityCenter gives fair warning,” Kranes says. “How many unfinished projects etch the skyline?”
Before it all falls apart, though, there’s one other dream worth mentioning. “I’d really love to have Cantrell done in Las Vegas,” he says. In fact, neither of his Nevada plays have been produced in the Silver State. “Nevada has been done in L.A. Maybe I should write a play called L.A. and then it would be done in Nevada.” Stranger dreams have come true.