By MARK BLANKENSHIP
They're called playwrights and not "playwrites" because plays are wrought, constructed, carefully made. Even if a script begins in a burst of inspiration, it will eventually be refined, and that process always reveals something important.
Take what happened with Norm, a central character in Andrew Hinderaker's dark comedy Suicide, Incorporated, now running in the Roundabout's Roundabout Underground series. The play is about a company that specializes in writing suicide notes, and it mostly follows Jason, an employee with secret reasons for taking the job.
Hinderaker realized, though, that Jason needed a foil. "As soon as I had the storyline, it felt like a critical piece of it was a relationship with one of the clients," he says. "For a main character so driven by unanswered questions and guilt, I thought that he would be desperate to know this person's reasons for wanting to take his own life."
That led to the creation of Norm, a shy man who is suicidal after losing his job and divorcing his wife. When he first imagined Norm, Hinderaker saw him as a "mopey office drone," but as he continued writing, the character changed.
First and foremost, he realized Norm couldn't be stereotypically depressed. "The trap with writing and playing depressed characters can be that everything just sort of slows down and becomes sad," he says. "That's dramatically less interesting [to watch] and it's less complex for the characters. I realized I had to dig into the pain and what was under that pain and all the things that had been lost, principally in his relationship with his wife."
Now, Norm (played by James McMenamin) is a passionate character, despite his dark thoughts. He's focused on his suicide note, but there's a compelling urgency to how perfect he wants it to be, and in a monologue about meeting his wife, we see the flicker of forgotten happiness.
"I've talked about how surprising and delightful it is when you see this guy smile for the first time," Hinderaker says.
McMenamin has learned from that happiness, too . "It seems like Norm was doing pretty well," he says. "It was a quiet, simple life, but he was doing pretty well before things went bad. I want to show a guy who was, at one point, just fine."
As these humanizing elements have been layered into Norm's character, both Hinderaker and McMenamin say they've been surprised to discover that audiences think he's funny. In one scene, for instance, he jokes that everyone calls him "the Norm" because he's so average, and that's so endearingly that it's easy to laugh. "He has the ability to just sort of brighten up for a moment," Hinderaker says.
But those moments have to be treated carefully. MeMenamin says that if he begs the audience for laughter or tears, he'll get neither. "If people connect to the work we're doing, then that's great, but as long as I stick to the basic objectives in the script, the rest will hopefully come through without me having to reach for it."
In other words, though the playwright crafts the play and the actor sculpts his performance, they both have to know when to put down the tools. Plays are wrought, but the good ones don't show it.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor