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Jeff Talbott experiments with language in his new drama
Despite the main character's titular occupation being a thing of the past, a haunting sense of timelessness looms over Jeff Talbott's moving play The Gravedigger's Lullaby. The work's world premiere -- presented by TACT at Theatre Row -- tells the story of Baylen (Ted Koch), a hardworking gravedigger struggling to support his wife Margot (KK Moggie) and their baby daughter. Baylen routinely sits at his dingy dinner table eating his meager post-work meal, talking of how he yearns to improve their lot. While at work, Baylen and his colleague Gizzer (Todd Lawson) encounter Charles (Jeremy Beck), a wealthy gentleman visiting the graveyard in preparation for his father's burial. This meeting between characters on opposite ends of the class spectrum sparks a series of events exploring various social, political, and existential questions.
Of the eight plays Talbott has written, including the Outer Critics Circle Award-winning The Submission, he says that his approach to language is most crucial to this work. "My dialogue is pretty challenging for actors because it has a lot of overlap," he says. "It's a great way to signal that two people either know each other very well -- or don't know each other at all. For the actors, it's a tricky thing to do because they have to listen and talk at the same time. It took them a little bit to get used to it, but once they all clicked into it, they made it seem like second nature. As an audience member, I find it very exciting when it's all happening at the same time and you really have to lean in and catch everything."
Talbott praises director Jenn Thompson for helping the cast tackle his language. "She's great at carving that out," he says. "'Okay, you're talking at the same time so you have to be 20 percent softer than him because we need to hear that a little above what you're saying.' There's a technical aspect in putting that together, and then you have to leave it to the actors to make it organic."
Up until the final hours of previews, Talbott continued to experiment with language, changing details here and there. "Little things started making themselves clear -- instances of how a word could change things," he says. "For example, at one point, Charles responds to another character's line with, 'That's an odd way to say that.' But 'odd' sounded wrong to me for weeks and I couldn't figure it out." When the actor accidentally substituted the word "strange," Talbott heard bells go off. "We added that in and it changed everything," he says. "'Strange' is stronger and ethereal, not of the ground, while 'odd' seems too highfalutin and 'weird' is too working class. 'Strange' hit it right in the middle."
In his quest for perfect word choices, Talbott and his collaborators also utilized a powerful alternative: silence. "As the play revealed itself to me, Jenn and I became interested in exploring how a story could be told in sequences of no dialogue," he explains. "There's a seven-minute sequence that has only four lines in it. That started to radiate around the play, and I found that the more I could find places to take language away, the better it was for these characters. Because when they finally did talk, it had a lot more impact."
Talbott originally joined TACT as an actor. Since his passion for playwriting bloomed, however, the theatre company, which usually revives classics, developed some of his shows through its newTACTics New Play Festival. "When working with actors you trust, it's great when someone says, 'Can we cut that? I don't need that,'" he says. "I remember saying to Jenn during the audition process, 'The great thing about casting that person is I can already see that they will be able to take away a quarter of what the character could say, because they will fill it in as an actor. I won't need four sentences; two will do because that actor can do it all.' As a writer, it ends up giving me much more access to economy in language and that's a gift."
Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.
Top image: Jeremy Beck and Ted Koch in The Gravedigger's Lullaby. Photos by Marielle Solan.