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Short, Sharp Shocks

Date: Aug 24, 2009


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At the moment, Thomas Bradshaw may be the most divisive playwright in New York. For every foundation that's giving him an award, there's a group of audience members who are walking out on his plays. For every critic praising him, there's another who's deriding him as a provocateur.

But however they respond, few people in the theatre community are ignoring him. In the last three years, Bradshaw has won a Guggenheim  Fellowship, been produced all over the world, and seen six of his plays published by Samuel French. Love him or loathe him, he's an artist whose platform is growing bigger by the day.

When Bradshaw's new play The Bereaved opens at the Wild Project on September 2, in a staging from Partial Comfort Productions, audiences will have another chance to experience his vicious vision for themselves. Like most of his work, this acid comedy pushes the buttons and boundaries of America's racial and economic problems. After benignly arguing about taking out the garbage, for instance, a white suburban couple starts snorting cocaine and discussing their son's sexual fetishes. This leads to staged rape fantasies, children happily dealing drugs, and a deathbed scene that flaunts the weepy conventions of most "adult dramas."

Bradshaw stresses that he doesn't want these moments just to be outrageous. "There's an extreme in my plays, where the characters are acting on pure id," he says. "If something comes to their heads, they say it. That gets at an essence of the truth, and if you're watching it, it's important to understand that maybe you'd never actually have this conversation, but that this is the conversation you wish you could have."

In other words, Bradshaw's writing confronts the unpleasant impulses that often control our lives. By pushing his work to the edge of acceptability, he may very well jolt us into acknowledging the parts of ourselves that we don't like to discuss.

Crucially, Bradshaw's plays don't tell us how to feel about their characters. So-called "bad guys" rarely get punished, and when they're not raping or drug dealing, they do very sweet things. "I'm trying to deal honestly with subjects that make us uncomfortable, and part of that honesty is not judging people," he says. "When we do deal with these subjects, it's often so we can say, 'Bad! That person's bad!' But that isn't my experience of the world. I find that people have a deeper capacity for good and for evil than we admit."

For May Adrales, director of The Bereaved, this moral ambiguity is part of what makes Bradshaw's plays engaging. "I've always been terrifically appalled or moved or shaken by his work, and in this play, I was enthralled by how many boundaries he was pushing about class and race," she says.

However, she says there's more to his writing than edgy subjects. "With The Bereaved, I really admire the architecture of the script," she says. "Every scene is short and powerful and eventful, and it really keeps us moving forward."

Those short, sharp scenes are part of Bradshaw's heightened theatrical style, which he calls "hyperrealism" or "reality without the boring parts." He eschews what he calls the "dishonest stuff in psychological realism," like lengthy monologues where characters explain their motivations. "I think it's pure artifice to have characters explain what they're doing and why they're doing it," he says. "In real life, we're usually not sure why people are acting the way they're acting. So often, I don't explain my characters' behavior."

But while that anti-psychological approach can give an audience a more visceral experience, it can intimidate actors. Adrales says, "Every scene in The Bereaved needs emotional weight, but the actors have to get there very quickly, without the kind of build-up and thought process that they're used to when they're building a character. It's a challenge."

She adds, "It's a good challenge, though, because we really believe in the play's explosive effect. If the play lingered on things too long, it would lose its potency. Too much 'logic' would make us lose the impact of what's happening."