Monday, May 17, 2010

Where Are the New Playwrights? They're Here! They're Here!

A question that is frequently asked in the wonderful world of theater is “where are the new playwrights?” There always seems to be a fear that the “golden age” of theater is gone forever, and we will never again see the likes of [fill in the blank with your favorite dead or aging playwright].

Well, let’s take a look at the current Broadway and Off Broadway season and see what we can come up with.

Annie Baker is the new playwright I’d bank on the most. Not yet 30, she already has Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Award nominations under her belt. This season alone, she has given us two strong entries with Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. Baker has an uncanny ear for authentic dialog and the ability to capture the essence of each of the characters she creates. She is definitely a writer to be reckoned with.

But there are plenty of other up-and-comers who are doing interesting work. They offer us original ideas, or voices, or ways of looking at things that make us sit up and take notice.

From first-time playwright Alexi Kay Campbell, we had The Pride, a play that contrasts gay relationships in the 1950s with those of today. The Pride was given a strong production under the direction of Joe Montello, with topnotch performances by Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw. I look to see what Campbell will come up with next.

Chicago playwright Ellen Fairey, whose Graceland is on tap at the Duke, is someone else to watch. Graceland is only her second full length play, yet in it she shows she is able to create interesting situations and complicated characters. The play, which presents us with two intersecting stories about fathers and their children, holds an audience because her characters are not so easily pigeonholed and behave both as predictably and as unpredictably as the people who make us crazy in our own lives.

On the lighter side, there is Ben Andron, whose first play, White’s Lies, is currently on view at New World Stages. And while White’s Lies received a mixed reception, I see it as a strong first effort, with a comic flair and enough writing polish so that I view Andron as someone to keep an eye on. Tackling farce is a risky business, yet with White’s Lies, he comes pretty darn close to getting it right, despite slipping a little too deeply into sit-com territory.

As if the room weren’t getting crowded enough, we need to ask everyone to move over to make space for two additional playwrights, both of whom have plays in preview at Off Broadway houses even as I put down these words

We’ll start with Minneapolis-based Kristoffer Diaz, who has presented us with a truly original theatrical voice in his play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The play, which casts a satiric eye on the professional wrestling industry and the general buzz of xenophobia that surrounds it, brings an energetic hip hop sensibility to the theater. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is both funny and thoroughly engaging, thanks to Diaz’s wonderful command of language and sense of the absurd.

Let me offer up a few words about the production itself, since I have not written about it previously. The success of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is definitely abetted by the solid direction of Edward Torres, and fun staging by Brian Sidney Bembridge (set design), Jesse Klug (lighting design), and Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), all of whose efforts add markedly to the audience’s pleasure. The fine cast includes Desmin Borges as the Puerto Rican narrator Macedonio Guerra, known in the wrestling world as “Che Chavez Castro,” and Usman Ally as Vigneshwar Paduar, an Indian street performer who is transformed into the vaguely Arab terrorist, “The Fundamentalist.” The play, much of which takes place on and around a wrestling ring, deals with Macedonio Guerra’s transition, from accepting his work as just a job in the entertainment field, to his growing understanding that he is a willing collaborator in the promotion of racial stereotypes in order to sell Pay-Per-View tickets and wrestling merchandise. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is not Diaz’s freshman effort, but it is sure to be the one to launch his career into hyperspace. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize!

And last in our roundup, we will tip our hat to Polly Stenham, a young British playwright who, at the age of 19, wrote That Face, now on view at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage 1. That Face, a visceral dark comedy/drama, took the London theater world by storm when it opened in 2007, garnering accolades and multiple awards for its writer. The play, very well acted by its American cast, deals with an exceptionally dysfunctional family, presided over by alcoholic, pill-popping, bipolar Mummy (powerfully portrayed by Laila Robins), whose desperate and selfish neediness has all but destroyed her teenage children. Her son, Henry (Christopher Abbott), in particular, has been pushed from being a hapless enabler into co-dependency. By the end of the play, you are trying to figure out how many years of therapy it will take to get anyone on his or her respective feet.

All in all, I think it is safe to say the theater world is in good hands, with many new and emerging playwrights hard at work creating original and provocative plays. Broadway itself may be caught up in the greater show biz culture, dependent on jukebox musicals and movie stars to draw in the crowds, but certainly Off Broadway is alive and well and handily taking up the slack with first-rate productions of a wide array of new plays by up-and-coming playwrights whose talented voices should keep us audiences in good stead for many years to come.

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