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Playwright Jack Thorne talks about his two new shows opening in NYC
When Jack Thorne was 11 years old, he was kicked out of choir for lying. "I was absolutely devastated," recalls the Tony-winning English playwright of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, who has two shows opening in New York this fall. "That feeling is still with me to this day," he admits, citing the incident as one of the defining moments of his life. The way memorable events of our youth shape our adulthood is the subject of his world-premiere play Sunday, currently running at Atlantic Theater Company. Centered on a diverse group of twentysomethings who gather in a New York City apartment for a book club, the one-act explores the plight of a generation that is overeducated, underemployed and still infatuated with childhood.
"I think it's very, very hard being a twentysomething right now," says Thorne, who is 40 and has a 3-year-old son. "I think it is a really complicated time. I wanted to investigate that and then I thought maybe a book group might be interesting -- it all sprung from there."
The book being discussed is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant about three siblings who remember their shared upbringing quite differently. The novel's complex themes, a game of "Never Have I Ever" and copious consumption of alcohol fuel a discussion about issues that have been plaguing the characters, including moral choices, toxic masculinity, arrested development and a sense of aimlessness.
Thorne says the protagonists' perpetual state of wistful contemplation is kind of like the "Sunday scaries," hence the play's title. "Sunday night is the night that I can never sleep because that feeling of like, 'Okay, the weekend is over,'" he says. "What's in front of me, and what's behind me?"
Thorne worked hard to get into the headspace of today's twentysomethings while writing, both by drawing on his own past and talking to millennials. "You worry about getting it wrong and feeling like an old duffer who doesn't understand stuff," he concedes. He credits the young people he spoke with -- including the British actors who performed the play's workshop in London and the current Off-Broadway cast -- with helping him find his way into the characters and their generation's woes.
However, many of their woes are timeworn. They talk a lot about loneliness, a feeling Thorne remembers well. At age 24, he was living with his brother in Croydon, a "not very cool suburb of London," and paying the rent as a learning support worker while trying to write. "I was pretty lonely," he says. Sunday is peppered with other nods to his own life, such as a character who talks about a childhood illness; as a young adult, Thorne suffered from a severe case of chronic cholinergic urticaria, a painful skin ailment.
Sunday is a departure from the large-scale spectacles that made Thorne's name on Broadway, such as the magic-filled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the gargantuan King Kong. But Thorne says Sunday harks back to his early work. "I used to do two-person plays in black box theatres before I got the opportunity to tell bigger stories, but inside me is that same playwright," he says.
Although Sunday's milieu is naturalistic, there are some fantastical, Potter-esque elements in its stage directions, such as a spinning bookshelf and characters scaling the walls. For this staging, director Lee Sunday Evans opted to replace those with exuberant dance breaks, which serve as scenic transitions as well as moments of release. As the characters cavort about the stage, it feels magical in a way.
"I had a sense of how to write the story, but the best bit about theatre is that it is collaborative," says Thorne. "Lee is a choreographer as well as a brilliant director. She had a notion of how to tell this story, and I totally trusted that notion. All that stuff I left to her."
Thorne's next two projects also boast supernatural flair: He's the playwright behind the lauded London import of A Christmas Carol, which kicks off a limited holiday run on November 7, the same week his adaptation of His Dark Materials debuts on HBO.
Considering Thorne has been compared to Charles Dickens, it's fitting that he got to put his stamp on the Victorian classic. "It is such a beautiful story. I mean, Dickens can write!" Thorne says with a laugh. "Delving into it and discovering lots of unexpected gems was absolutely beautiful. It's been a dream, from start to finish."
Top image: Sadie Scott, Zane Pais, Ruby Frankel and Juliana Canfield in Sunday. Photo by Monique Carboni.