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The Most Important New York Playwright You've Probably Never Heard Of

By: Billy McEntee
Date: Aug 19, 2019

A Mac Wellman festival at The Flea hopes to earn the venerable dramatist new fans


"It wasn't my idea at all but it's fine with me!" says Mac Wellman about the ten-week festival of his plays kicking off this Saturday at Tribeca's Flea Theater. Despite being an incredibly prolific (40-odd plays and counting), lauded (three Obie Awards) and influential dramatist (he just retired after teaching playwriting for decades at Brooklyn College, where past students included Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker and Guggenheim "Genius Grant" Fellow Young Jean Lee), Wellman is not well-known outside the downtown scene, and he realizes it. Niegel Smith, the artistic director of The Flea, knows it, too, and he hopes Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes, which runs August 24 to November 1, will introduce the playwright's idiosyncratic oeuvre to new audiences.

"Mac is one of our nation's most undersung vanguards of dramatic truth, experimentation and the poetic absurd," Smith says. Since the '70s, he's blazed a trail for avant-garde writers. Now 74, Wellman has a long history of being produced at The Flea, which isn't surprising considering he's one of the theatre's cofounders. However, this is the first time The Flea has presented five of his plays in rep, and Smith says the festival came about organically.

"We always look to stage plays that speak directly to our current moment," Smith explains. While planning this season, The Flea's former artistic director and current board member, Jim Simpson, brought up Wellman's 1990 play Sincerity Forever, about a fictional Southern town rife with young Ku Klux Klan members. Smith recalls Simpson saying that the biting satire "should be staged all around the country right now." That sparked the idea of a deep dive into Wellman's canon. Over the past year, The Flea's resident directors have been working with the theatre's diverse resident acting ensemble, the Bats, on a quintet of works. "Some were written 30 years ago, some are world premieres," Smith says. "They all are shockingly relevant to right now -- and deeply funny."


Wellman recalls that he wrote Sincerely Forever "in response to a bunch of right-wing senators attacking the National Endowment for the Arts way back when." Of course today the play feels much less metaphorical. Eerily, director Dina Vovsi decided to set the production in a Walmart parking lot months ago, long before the anti-immigrant El Paso gunman recently turned one into a scene of carnage.

Of the four other plays in the festival, two are revivals. 1989's Bad Penny, which was originally presented as a site-specific piece in Central Park, is about the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a man and a woman sitting on a bench. The 1998 one-act The Sandalwood Box, about a professor who keeps the world's catastrophes locked away in a box, is being paired with the debut of The Fez, about a play printed on a T-shirt. The other world premiere, The Invention of Tragedy, is Wellman's singular meditation on our post-9/11 society.

Despite the plays' surreal setups, Wellman gave the casts and creative teams one firm directive: "Don't turn them into cartoons. Treat them as absolute realism with nothing exaggerated." Smith agrees that's the only way to make them work. "They take you into mucky terrain while reminding you to laugh at the absurdity of human choices," he says.

Although Wellman is keen to see all the productions, he admits he's most excited about The Invention of Tragedy. "I came to the conclusion that, after 9/11, Americans as individuals ceased to exist," he says. "We are just a chorus spouting platitudes one way or the other. The play deals with humanity as a chorus of 1,000 people. That would be the ideal performance of it, but obviously there won't be 1,000 people on stage."

That desire for audacity is inseparable from the theatre Wellman helped found in 1996, which is why The Flea is the perfect place for audiences to experience his work. "Mac and his plays are deeply embedded in the ethos of the Flea," Smith says. "He actually wrote the line in our mission 'to raise a joyful hell in a small space.'"


Follow Billy McEntee at @wjmcentee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Mac Wellman. Photo by Crystal Arnette.

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Billy McEntee is a freelance writer and arts journalist. He's the Theater Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, instructs with The School of The New York Times and helps promote shows with shorter runs through Staff Picks (@paffsticks).