Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Writers' Bloc

A fearless new generation of Off-Broadway playwrights establishes downtown beachheads

by Alexis Soloski

Yes theater is a game, and yes that game is rigged, and yes everyone knows it. While we're speaking in threes, the three (unacknowledged) rules of the American theater: Aim low, shit floats, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease. All this, as I've said, everyone knows, yet none knows to shun the heaven that leads us to this hell.


American theater always manages to reinvent itself at the worst of all possible times. The best of our new theater practitioners have already begun to imagine a set of goals and procedures in which perception requires no other justification than the beauty that entitles it. In this dramatic universe, theatrical high jinks are their own reward; and so it is with the new plays one is beginning to encounter these days in New York.

Like I say, how this is, I do not know. But it may well be that just as the conventional realism of the second half of the 20th century has devolved into meretricious self-parody, remarkable new kinds of theater writing have begun to appear in these States. Quizzical, skeptical even of the idea (if not the fact) of reality itself. This is neither the arch and histrionic skepticism of the absurdists nor the equally histrionic cynicism of what passes for postmodernism. For the best of this new work is more intellectually and emotionally grounded than these earlier movements. Grounded in a paradoxical lack of groundedness. I am talking about plays that are based on meticulous realist craft, but that do not rest with conventional and tired realist homilies. Plays that do not attempt to reassure us that what is taken for granted (by the previous realists) is all there is. Still, given the prevalence of corporate riggery and staleness in the boardrooms of American theater, the questions remains: Why the optimism?

ITEM: Consider the excellence of this year's plays at the Humana Festival: new work by Naomi Iizuka, Kirsten Greenidge, Rinne Groff, Melanie Marnich, and Jordan Harrison, not to mention the surprise hit, After Ashley, by Gina Gionfriddo. Now, Marnich and Groff are both highly talented veterans. Greenidge and Harrison are younger writers of obvious and unusual talent, and Gionfriddo is a dark horse whose play seems likely to move on. Harrison and Gionfriddo are graduates of Paula Vogel's estimable Brown playwriting program, as are Sarah Ruhl, this year's Susan Smith Blackburn Award winner, and Adam Bock, whose Five Flights appeared at the Rattlestick this year after a two-year run in San Francisco. Interestingly, Bock attributes the success of the Brown program to Paula Vogel's emphasis on formal rigor, a concern that animates much of the exciting new playwriting one finds downtown.

ITEM: Clubbed Thumb, the creation of Meg McCary and Maria Striar (both Brown and later UCSD grads), has a splendid summer series, which has presented the work of Lisa D'Amour (Obie winner for Nita and Zita), Scott Adkins, Ann Marie Healy, Gordon Dahlquist, and Gionfriddo, and has produced Erin Courtney's Demon Baby this season. Courtney also studied at Brown, and recently received her M.F.A. from the Brooklyn College program started by the legendary Jack Gelber (where I currently labor). Clubbed Thumb also produced Groff's play, Inky. Groff is also a performer with Elevator Repair Service, and was a member of a remarkable class of NYU playwrights that includes Madeleine George, a founder with Rob Handel of 13P (see below), as well as Madelyn Kent, Eduardo Andino, Maja Milanovic, Gary Winter, and Anne Washburn. Len Jenkin, Martin Epstein, and Janet Neipris are among the notable playwriting teachers at NYU.

ITEM: The Pataphysics Workshops, started up by Washburn and Winter at the Flea a few years ago, have been sparking useful collaborations. These intensive two-week sessions tend to attract a slightly older and more committed type of writer, generally New York based. Jeffrey M. Jones, Erik Ehn, Karen Finley, Charles L. Mee, and the remarkable Maria Irene Fornes have regularly conducted these workshops.

ITEM: 13P (short for 13 Playwrights, Inc.) has just begun operations with a fine production of Washburn's The Internationalist at the Culture Project, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll (who also directed Courtney's Demon Baby). 13P is of particular note because it has been created by playwrights for playwrights on behalf of plays—playwrights who see no point in the whining endemic to the Theater of the Unproduced. Thus, each of the 13 will receive a full production before 2010, and each is expected to contribute manfully to the others' shows. A fine and intelligent idea in this day of institutional blandness. 13P is made up of Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Madeleine George, Rob Handel, Ann Marie Healy, Julia Jarcho, Young Jean Lee, Winter Miller, Sarah Ruhl, Kate E. Ryan, Lucy Thurber, Anne Washburn, and Gary Winter. These playwrights remain unawed by the difficulty of pursuing an aggressively non-corporate, non-careerist path.

ITEM: Emily DeVoti, another NYU playwright, and her husband, Theodore Hamm, have started The Brooklyn Rail, an excellent new monthly arts and politics magazine that contains serious and comprehensive articles by and about many of the writers mentioned, as well as excerpts from their current work.

ITEM: The Flea Theater, under Jim Simpson and Carol Ostrow, pursues both mainstream work (A.R. Gurney's hit play Mrs. Farnsworth) and a daring new play festival (with work by Kate Ryan, Gary Winter, Sheila Callaghan, Kevin Oakes, Charlotte Meehan, and Will Eno). Similarly, Daniel Aukin's Soho Rep has an impressive Writer/Director lab, which has developed work by many of these writers; Soho Rep has also given strong productions to Melissa James Gibson's [sic] and Suitcase, and Young Jean Lee's The Appeal.

ITEM: Over the last few years the Little Theater at Tonic, started by Judy Elkan and Kristen Kosmas, and currently run by Jeffrey M. Jones and Kate Ryan, has featured a monthly series of works in progress.

What is striking about all this activity, even rendered in a cursory and incomplete fashion, is how much overlap there is between groups, whether it's workshops (as in Pataphysics) or productions (as in 13P and Clubbed Thumb). Even a collective like the Civilians, which was created by some extraordinarily talented actors (like Jenny Morris and Colleen Werthman) and equally talented directors (Steve Cosson and Anne Kauffman), provides new venues for this fresh writing. Cross-fertilization is everywhere. Indeed, the complex layering of association, what Edward Said calls "affiliation," is typical of the current scene—if scene it can be properly called. Rather, there seems to be a dozen or so scenes, related but not replicates, permeable and fluid for the most part. Individuals move in and about this loose cosmology as interest, talent, energy, and artistic impulse dictate. This type of theater community doesn't seem likely to morph into a Performance Group, Open Theater, or Wooster Group. The real estate situation—and the weird financial paradox of a super-rich New York with a young theater movement whose poverty seems to be its sole inheritance—have made such fixed structures virtually impossible. Curiously, the writing programs in the area have replaced bohemia as places where the young and adventurous can mix and share ideas for a truer, more vital theater.

What impresses this observer is that these groups seem on the verge of making a truly creative community in which the right kind of competitiveness and conversation stimulate individuals to reach deeper into themselves, work harder, and go further. My generation of theater writers, by contrast, despite some attempts by a Happy Few, has remained pretty much a collection of suspicious, envious isolatoes—unwilling even to contemplate, much less formulate, common goals that involve any aesthetic discussion beyond the purely professional. Thus we remain at odds, loners and careerists of varying talent and success, and of an unclear profile, artistically speaking. The generation now hitting its stride may be able to do more. We will all be better off if it is able to pull it off. The riggery will perhaps always be there, but the sham will be far more obvious if there is some kind of real alternative, several miles downtown of the land of the yellow playbill.


Monday, May 10, 2004

We Lost It

In the UK, documentary theatre is the boom stage phenomenon of the age. So too in the States, where New York troupe The Civilians have given the genre a musical revue spin. Their second show, 'Gone Missing', which visits London from this week, derives from interviews with members of the public about titems they've lost and found. 'We were interested in the mechanics of loss,' says writer/dcirector Steven Cosson. 'We wanted to explore the stories we tell ourselves and others about loss and absence.' The company have added their own songs and sketches on the theme, but the core of the show remains the true-life stories culled from real New Yorkers. Or approximations thereof. 'Even though we work from reality,' says Cosson, 'we believe trepresentation is inherently subjective.' The company's interviews with the public aren't recorded, merely recalled. 'We don't necessarily claim to be telling the truth.'

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Gone Missing

by Brian Logan

Lost property, lost memory, lost love. Gone Missing, by New York troupe The Civilians, is an exploration in soliloquy and song of what it means to lose something. The show derives from interviews with members of the public about objects they've lost: rings, mobile phones, cuddly toys. These testimonies — some delightful, some pedestrian — are recreated onstage by a six-strong cast (plus pianist), who animate their respodents' mannerisms and polyglot dialects with fun-poking, shrewdly observed precision...the performers, all dressed in sharp suits, have a twinkle in the eye and a flair for comic characterisation. Michael Friedman's songs are super-smart and heartfelt. And the production, directed by Steven Cosson, is a model of elegant economy.


Friday, May 7, 2004

Gone Missing

by Sam Marlowe

In our hectic modern world there are many ways to lose things, and many things to lose: the will to live, the plot, a war. These and others are explored in this slick cabaret piece, the UK debut of the acclaimed New York company The Civilians, which combines verbatim text from interviews conducted by the cast with fiction and song.

Gone Missing, by Steven Cosson, Peter Morris and company members, with songs by Michael Friedman, was created in the wake of 9/11. Its approach to the terrorist attack is oblique, but the shadow of the twin towers — themselves now a memory — falls across even the most apparently trivial or amusing anecdote, lending it a darker poignancy.

On Takeshi Kata's blue box set the cast of six, in city-slicker suits, weave tales of the misplaced ranging from the mundane to the mysterious. An everyday story of a man who loses his mobile phone and tries obsessively to track it down shows not only how much of ourselves we invest in our possessions, but also how much of our lives we wasted acquiring and attempting to retain them. At the other extreme, a comically grisly account by a streetwise cop of finding a decomposing corpse missing various body parts is a jolting reminder that even our physical selves are ultimately only objects, capable of drifting into oblivion.

The show tangentially connects such ideas with the philosophy of Freud and Plato, and the myths of Atlantis and the Sargasso Sea, reinforcing the metaphor intermittently with gurgling sound effects and slo-mo choreography by Jim Augustine, so that the cast sometimes appears to be performing under water.

This witty treatment of weighty themes extends to Friedman's stylish songs, performed to piano accompaniment by Duncan Wisbey and occasional acoustic guitar. With their wry comedy and sense of yearning, these are sometimes reminiscent of US songsmiths Maltby and Shire. And in their evocation of the unreliability of memory, they recall the haunting Remember? from Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Then there's Hide and Seek, a wistful Suzanne Vega-type song about lost opportunity, which includes a lovely lyric in which the singer recalls "when I knocked my mothers perfume off the shelf and smelled for weeks like I was going somewhere".

Elsewhere, there are power ballads, jazz-inflected cool, even German lieder and a steamy Latin number — something for everyone, in fact. A show about the stuff of life, and the life of stuff, this is a thing of beauty. Go and see it.



by Charles Spencer

This beguiling show "about things lost and found" brings an archetypal off-Broadway experience to Notting Hill. On leaving the theatre, I half expected to find myself in Greenwich Village rather than the Bayswater Road.

Gone Missing marks the British debut of New York company The Civilians, which specialises in the documentary-drama that is currently enlivening theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.

The piece was created from interviews with New Yorkers about their experiences of losing things, though the brief is a broad one. Alongside accounts of lost rings, pets and clothes, we also hear of people who have lost their love, their mind and their life.

And, this being a New York show, the verbatim speech is accompanied by witty, tuneful and often extremely touching original songs about loss, written by Michael Friedman and performed with terrific brio by the six-strong cast. The performers (three men and three women) are superbly versatile and, in their retro suits, shirts and ties, watching them is like encountering Gilbert and George in triplicate.

Steven Cosson, who also directs, has constructed the show with great skill. Narratives about different forms of loss are cunningly interwoven, interrupted by a song, and then further developed later. And the mood is enormously varied, ranging from the touching to the blackly comic, the tragic to the joyful.

The philosophy of Plato, Freudian theory, and the true meaning of the word nostalgia (it derives from a Greek compound meaning the pain of homecoming) are all given an airing, though the show's manifest intelligence is accompanied by the lightest of touches.

Of course, the biggest loss New York has suffered was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, and the lives of the thousands of people inside it. It is a mark of this show's assurance that this momentous event is only fleetingly referred to, yet somehow shadows the whole production.

The cast impersonate a vast range of characters, ranging from a pet psychic and a"disposeaphobic" counsellor to a tough New York cop who tells a succession of hilariously grisly anecdotes about the dead bodies he's dealt with. There are also moments that suddenly pierce the heart – the recovery of a child's much-loved doll from a rubbish tip, the woman who feels she has somehow "erased" her frugal uncle by losing the money he left her with foolhardy investments on the stock exchange.

All six members of the cast shine – Maria Dizzia's rendition of the haunting song Hide and Seek is particularly fine, while Mark Saturno's morbid cop, with his tales of decapitated bodies and eels in the orifices of waterlogged corpses, proves weirdly irresistible.

Gone Missing is imaginative, ingenious and staged with great panache, and beyond its humour and heartache lies a profound human truth: perhaps we only truly value those things we have lost.


Thursday, May 6, 2004


by Fiona Mountford

How fitting that it should be a theatre company from New York that ahs concocted such a penetrating and poignant piece about things that have been lost. yet dwell not on burning towers and falling bodies, for Gone Missing keeps 9/11 at a considerable yet respectful distance.

"The world is made of little things — what is important is to see them largely," says someone at the end, a line that serves as a fitting summation of this terrific work. Gone Missing created by recently formed company The Civilians, arrives on these shores from the Big Apple laden with praise, to which London audiences should hasten to add their voices during this all-too-short run. The premise is beguilingly simple: members of director Steven Cosson's team interviewed New Yorkers about precious misplaced objects and then turned the results into a 70-minute "mockumentary", or documentary interspersed with cabaret-style interludes.

Shoes, rings, cuddly toys, husbands, innocence, the plot, life itself: it seems there is nothing that New Yorkers have not let slip through their fingers. But tell us only about objects, insist those canny Civilians, thus ensuring that fundamental issues of love, family, belonging and the meaning of the whole darn shooting match can rise up unforced in their own good time.
It is therefore in the context of a lost Palm Pilot that the World Trade Center gets its one and only mention.

Rest assured that such treatment is the very opposite of glib. The underlying — and universally applicable — message is clear: if we place such value on small, even sentimental objects, how can we begin to count the cost of devastating large-scale losses?

In between each succinct section, members of the well-drilled, six-strong cast perform Michael Friedman's neatly judged songs.

In I Gave It Away, Maria Dizzia, Christina Kirk and Alison Weller affect cloying sweetness whilst acidly listing the physical and emotional leftovers of a failed cohabitation, whereas in Etch a Sketch, the whole company laments the blunting of a sharp mind once capable of memorising the periodic table.

We listen, empathise and agree that to lose is what binds us together in our humanity.