Friday, June 1, 2007

The not-ready-for-Broadway playwrights

Give the Great White Way a rest and head downtown, where a bevy of brilliant young dramatists are creating the city’s most original theater.

Photographs by Peter Bellamy

The past few months have been hard on American playwrights. In April, the Pulitzer committee decided not to award a prize for drama. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle found no homegrown work worth lauding when it doled out its awards May 23. Lisa Kron’s critically acclaimed but publicly underappreciated Well closed after playing to two-thirds-empty houses. Come June 11, odds are The History Boys—a veddy English school dramedy written by a 72-year-old Yorkshireman—will snag the Tony for Best Play. All this in a season in which three Irish works (Faith Healer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Shining City) dyed the Great White Way distinctly green. The noble calling of literary giants such as Miller, O’Neill and Williams is dead, right?

Don’t believe it. Just as the Grammys and Oscars aren’t barometers of musical and cinematic taste, the Tonys and Pulitzer won’t necessarily tell you what’s worth following in theater. But we will. The ink-stained talents collected here are young and hungry. None of them is the greatest living American scribe (that plaque goes to Albee, Mamet or Kushner,take your pick). They’re not even among the upstarts who’ve generated the most coverage (sorry, Adam Rapp, Rinne Groff, Will Eno and Lynn Nottage). But they’re producing the most stimulating work in town—and they’re why this is a great time to go and see a downtown show.—David Cote

Mysterious ways
Lose yourself in Washburn if... you swoon for Sofia Coppola’s dreamy filmmaking, wish that Björk would star in more movies and devour Haruki Murakami novels.

Anne Washburn, 38, poster child of both the Civilians and the DIY playwrights collective 13P, can be a tough writer to pin down: One minute she’s confiding ghost stories (Apparition), and the next she’s introducing historical she-monsters to each other (The Ladies), only to follow it all up with a fish-out-of-water fable, half spoken in gibberish (The Internationalist). But what her pieces have in common is the way she captures her characters’ discombobulation, whether due to travel, the supernatural or some dizzying postmodern device. Her plays, steeped in the disorienting techniques of nonnarrative giants like the Wooster Group, nonetheless have strong stories at their core. The resulting juxtapositions are provoking, mysterious and rich with her sense that, as she puts it,“we are surrounded by things we can’t see, can’t control and can’t understand.” Her next work, I Have Loved Strangers, a lyrical investigation of false and true prophets, materializes at the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival (at the Ohio Theatre, Sunday 4–June 10), while The Internationalist will pack its bags for a much-deserved Off Broadway run at the Vineyard this October. —Helen Shaw

Documentary shredder
Cosson is on your brain-wavelength if... you enjoy the referential layering of Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, the eclectic Readings section of Harper’s and the gently off-center observational wit of NPR’s This American Life.

When explaining the work that he has created for the Civilians, the red-hot theater troupe he founded in 2001, Steven Cosson tends to end his sentences with mild question marks, as if everything might be up for revision. Such contingency is at the core of the playwright-director’s most recent shows, 2003’s Gone Missing and 2004’s (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch: brilliantly suggestive latticeworks of intellectual vaudeville, studded with song and dance. Cosson, 37, resists describing them as documentaries, although they are woven from the texts of real interviews conducted by the company. “A documentary investigates something to know more about it,” he says. “A creative investigative process—which I’m trying to coin—reveals what you don’t know about something.” Cosson is currently working on multiple projects: an interview-based look at conservative Christianity; a revision of a play set in the final days of the Paris Commune; and a piece about time, the research of which involves trips to Panama and Northern Canada. “I want to do experimental theater for the public,” he says. “For an audience that is not composed of professional theater-attending people.”—Adam Feldman