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Manhattan on the Rocks

Date: Apr 02, 2008


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Anyone who lives in Manhattan, particularly certain nightlife hot spots, might identify with the inspiration for Adam Bock's play The Drunken City, at Playwrights Horizons through Apr. 20.

"Adam lives in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, and on the weekends he feels like the city itself is drunk," says Trip Cullman, who directed the play's New York production. "So in his play, the city is like the seventh character, and it's drunk; every time a sort of truth comes out, the set tilts."

The play follows three recently engaged bachelorettes through an alternately celebratory and trying night on the town, as they flirt, bicker and confront some uncomfortable truths about their lives.

"Alcohol can certainly be a catalyst for truth telling," says Cullman. "But we also see the morning after, when the characters are hung over. After learning to tell the truth drunk, they have to tell the truth sober, which is a lot harder."

Cullman cites such Shakespearean precedents as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, in which "groups of lovers or friends get lost in the woods, and the setting acts as a catalyst for the relevations of romantic truth. Only in this case, instead of being a forest, it's the urban jungle. Lovers get paired and unpaired and repaired in interesting ways."

There's even a gay couple that Cullman compares to Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing, whom he describes as "peripheral characters who are helping others get together but in the end turn out to be in the most lasting and truthful relationship of all."

How did Cullman create a sense of drunkenness onstage without it seeming monotonous?

"We did a lot of visual research," Cullman explains. "We went onto, where people just sort of post snapshots of themselves out partying for all the world to see. We went to go watch people out at bars and clubs to see just how unruly they actually got--which was quite."

The best guide for the show's playing style turned out to be, appropriately enough, in Bock's script itself.

"Adam's writing inherently contains these hairpin turns, where someone is completely joyous one moment and completely morose the next," marvels Cullman. "They can be talking about something very deep one sentence, then something completely frivolous the next. When you're drunk, you don't distinguish between banal and life-changing thoughts."

Even when his characters aren't inebriated, Bock's use of language is idiosyncratic.

"If you read an Adam Bock play, the language looks super-hyper-stylized on the page," admits Cullman, who directed Bock's Swimming in the Shallows in 2005. "But if you have a kickass group of actors, as I did on this play, you realize that this is exactly the way people really talk: They interrupt each other, they stop and start, they don't finish sentences, they slur words together."

Still, we wonder: Does watching a stage full of drinking-impaired young people ever start to feel like we're at a stranger's party and we're not in on any of the jokes?

"The characters are written with such a warm-hearted generosity of spirit, and they're so delightful, that we want them all to be happy," Cullman says. "They don't overstay their welcome; you don't ever feel like they're having a much better time than you are.

"I think we recognize our own follies in their drunkenness. How many times have we said something or done something we wish we could take back?"

Click here for more information about The Drunken City.