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Harvesting a Fertile Playground

By: Isaac Butler
Date: Jun 22, 2009


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By Isaac Butler

It was random happenstance that paired David Adjmi-now making his New York debut at LCT3-with acclaimed director Anne Kauffman.  "David and I met in the late nineties," the director writes via e-mail, "He found my resume on some website and contacted me. And then we didn't see each other again until Thugs at Soho Rep".  That 2006 production, for which Kauffman won an Obie for Best Direction, put her and Adjmi back in touch right when the playwright was looking for a director for his play Stunning. For Kauffman, discovering Adjmi's work was a delight.  "He is ambitious and epic and I am attracted to playwrights who shoot for the impossible in theme and theatricality… writers who aim beyond themselves and write to try and understand the world rather than report on what they think they already know."

After receiving her MFA from UCSD, Anne Kauffman moved to New York and began working with the next generation of American playwrights, helping to found acclaimed company The Civilians and joining the Soho Rep Writer Director Lab, which has become a breeding ground for important idiosyncratic plays.   Due to her particular sensitivities to the needs of structurally challenging, linguistically dense work, Kauffman has swiftly ensconced herself as a premiere director of new plays, working with many of American theatre's hottest playwrights, including Anne Washburn, Jordan Harrison and Jenny Schwartz, whose critically acclaimed God's Ear she helmed for New Georges.  Writing in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood called the production "arrestingly odd" and praised Kauffman, writing that she possesses "an admirable feel for the play's tonal oddities".

Kauffman's enthusiasm for new plays is well known.  When asked why she focuses primarily on new work, Kauffman replies, "I love working with playwrights and bringing something that's never been seen before to the stage.  The writers I work with are really experimenting with theatrical form and I love forging a path for stylistically innovative work.  I feel like an inventor, an explorer and a humble theater practitioner working on new plays"

This tripartite understanding of her role in the process certainly makes her a good match for David Adjmi's work, which shifts style and tone and while remaining heartfelt and emotionally charged. Stunning is also, as far as a good faith research effort can figure out, about a community never explored on stage before, the Syrian-Jewish community of Midwood, Brooklyn. It's also the community in which Adjmi was raised.  In the play, a middle-aged man named Ike- whose living is made by ambiguously legal means- takes a teenage bride named Lily.  Lily hires an African-American housekeeper named (of all things) Blanche.  Soon, Blanche and Lily are having an affair and all hell begins to break loose. 

When asked how she went about learning about the Midwood Syrian-Jewish experience, Anne wrote, "Ohhh, we went straight to the heart of Midwood".  Kauffman, the actors and the dialect coach all took a field trip to Brooklyn to glean as much as possible about the world they would be recreating on stage.  "Obviously, we relied heavily on David for information, but to see it ourselves was absolutely invaluable… We've had a lot of Syrian Jews in our audiences so far and it's been a trip to see the mirror images of these characters sitting in the house!"

Like many new plays that find their way to New York, Stunning has traveled a lengthy road to get here.  Adjmi began writing the play roughly six years ago during a sojourn in Berlin.  Stunning's debut production-also directed by Kauffman-took place two years ago at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., whose mission is "to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community by developing, producing and promoting new plays".  That production starred Ruined's Quincy Tyler Bernstein and Too Much Memory's Laura Heisler. Now it has a new cast featuring Fabulation's Charlayne Woodard, new designers and a new home at LCT3, Lincoln Center's offshoot theater for works by emerging playwrights.   According to Kauffman, "the main difference in this version, we have more of a distinction age-wise between Lily, Blanche and Ike. That helps with the child bride story a bit more". 

Learn more about Stunning here and here.
Isaac Butler