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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.
This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via email) with his friend Christie Evangelisto, the Literary Director of Signature Theatre Company.
Today's Topic: Which recent plays deserve another production in New York?
MARK BLANKENSHIP: So Christie… I was psyched to hear that Signature is this year's winner of the Regional Theatre Tony Award, not least because you guys produce such a lively mix of new plays and slightly older works by the playwrights in your Residency One program. And as much as I love the new stuff, sometimes I'm grateful for the chance to revisit something from the past. Like… you're reviving Chuck Mee's Big Love next year, and I will never forget seeing that play in Atlanta when I was in college. I loved it, but since it didn't win a Pulitzer Prize or become a movie or dazzle a Broadway crowd, I figured I would never see another professional production of the show.
That happens to a lot of plays, you know? After they get that one New York production and maybe some regional premieres, they disappear forever. So I'm glad that a company like Signature or Second Stage will occasionally step in and bring something back to our attention here in New York.
CHRISTIE EVANGELISTO: Yes, the Tony has been really exciting for us, especially since this is the first year that New York-based theatres were eligible. And because there's been so much transition at Signature lately, between our fancy new building and the introduction of the Residency Five program, it's nice to come out on the other side of all of that and be recognized with an award.
And you're right, what happens to plays after that first production is something we talk and think about constantly. When putting together a Residency One season, we're always on the lookout for the play that got short shrift the first time around, or the play that feels as fresh and timely now as it did then, and deserves a new audience. Some of my favorite experiences at Signature have involved working on new productions of plays that warranted another look… like Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque, David Henry Hwang's Golden Child, Horton Foote's The Old Friends. You know I love me some new plays, but dusting off a magnificent play like Lady From Dubuque that very few people even knew existed feels really good.
MARK:With that in mind, I was hoping you'd join me in nominating some "lost recent classics" that deserve another look. And just for sanity's sake, let's stick to plays (not musicals) that premiered after 2000.
My first nominee is Christopher Shinn's On the Mountain, which I distinctly remember discussing with you in front of a Gray's Papaya almost a decade ago. (If you need, you can pause to wipe a tear at that beautiful memory.)
Way back in 2005, I just randomly happened to see it at Playwrights Horizons because the show next door, Shockheaded Peter, was sold out. And then… boom. The play transported me. It's ostensibly about a rock fan who's trying to gather info about a dead, Kurt Cobain-esque musician, so he insinuates himself into the life of NotKurt's ex-girlfriend and her daughter. But what I really remember is how smart the play was about technology. At the time, you couldn't open a window without hearing somebody insist that the internet was going to alienate everyone from each other, turning us into hopeless, lonely monsters. But On the Mountain had a much more sensitive understanding of how modern technology can both push us apart and pull us together. And I remember being so grateful that this play just got that. That it had something to say about the connected world that didn't default to the terrified certainty that machines would devour our souls.
And I'd love to see the play again, now that our relationship to online technology has evolved even further. What might we hear in Shinn's script this time that we couldn't before? Do you know what I mean? Do you remember this show and/or have feelings about it?
CHRISTIE: Well, of course I remember that show because I worked on it! That's back when I was still working at Playwrights Horizons, alongside the brilliant Tim Sanford. It is indeed a very happy memory (as is Shockheaded Peter, which I was completely obsessed with and saw maybe four times, but that's another story). The first time I read On the Mountain, I was so struck by Chris's effortless way with dialogue and how real and relatable the characters felt. And having been through a nineties-era grunge phase myself (a precursor to my goth phase), I loved the echoes of Kurt and Courtney and Frances Bean in Chris's story, and loved even more that the play moves on quickly from there, living and breathing on its own terms. I agree that the play had tricky, compelling things to say about technology---the image of a hoodie-d Alison Pill scarily, peacefully at one with her iPod is etched in my brain---and it had something remarkably prescient to say too about celebrity, and legacy, at a time before Facebook and Twitter when people were still figuring out how the internet might bring them closer to each other and to their idols. It was also a thoughtful study of depression and a close-up on that most fraught of human relationships---mother and teenage daughter. All that is to say, yes, I'm sure On the Mountain has aged well since 2005.
Also, Amy Ryan in that play?? Crazy amazing.
Another lost recent classic I thought of is Apparition by Anne Washburn, whose latest claim to fame is of course Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons. Apparition had a brief run at Chashama in 2003 that I didn't see, then a different production directed by Les Waters at the far-flung Connelly Theater in 2005. That's the one that rocked my world. You know how there are horror movies? Apparition is a horror play. I have never before and never since felt truly frightened in the theatre (the ending of Shining City didn't even get me). It's a collection of unnerving monologues and eerie scene-lets about our fear of the unseen, and the production made memorably potent use of language, sound, and light…or the complete lack thereof.
That's something I've always loved about Anne's work---her plays are inherently theatrical and so live. They're not meant to be movies; they play with the experience of sitting in a theatre while actors and designers conjure a new world right before your very eyes. And Anne loves to mess with language, to re-invent it, something she does so smartly in Apparition. She reminds me of my hero Caryl Churchill in that way. In fact, Apparition reminded me of The Skriker. They both bring a wild imagination and a keen intelligence to playwriting. They also make theatre fun. Isn't that something?
In any case, not many people got to see Apparition (a tiny theatre between A and B? Forget it.) Now that immersive, experiential theater is such a thing, I would love to see the bigger, badder, Punchdrunk-esque version of the play.
MARK: First of all, let me bashfully acknowledge that I had forgotten you were at Playwrights when I saw On the Mountain. Since I was still in grad school then, I kind of assumed you were still in school, but obviously, you graduated before me. Whoops!
Anyway, I happened to see Apparition when it was at the Connelly, and while I don't remember it quite as well as you, I distinctly recall a long, scary monologue featuring the actor T. Ryder Smith. The lighting design made it seem like he was emerging from the darkness by magic… like the light was getting brighter at his command. And because we WERE in that old, creaky theatre, it just made things even creepier. You're totally right that this is the perfect moment to revisit that show. With Punchdrunk getting everyone to hike through a hotel for Sleep No More, I feel like audiences would be much more willing to file into, say, an abandoned elementary school and see this nightmare come to life. (I just gave myself a chill!)
Now I'd like to take us back to 2002, when New York Theatre Workshop produced Flesh and Blood, Peter Gaitens' adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel about three generations of an American family. This thing is a sprawling, glorious event that demonstrates exactly how one person's choices can echo across decades and decades. What I remember so distinctly is how the show found small objects and simple images that could carry across the entire story, and it was like when a chorus comes back in a song. You're grounded by the things you can easily grasp, and they make it easier to enjoy the bigger, messier bits. (For what it's worth, the 2002 cast featured Cherry Jones, Martha Plimpton, and Jessica Hecht. So… basically all the superwomen.)
CHRISTIE: Oooo, I didn't see that! Wish I had. But your description reminds me of another sprawling, glorious family play that IMHO was unfairly glossed over a mere four years ago… When the Rain Stops Falling by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell. I read the play back when I was working for Scott Rudin and fell in love with it, so I was uber-excited when I heard that Lincoln Center was going to mount a production after it opened at the Almeida to rave reviews.
It's not an easy play by any stretch of the imagination---the action spans four generations of a family, from 1959 to 2039, in both London and Australia, and Bovell has such a light touch that you need to really lean in and listen to catch all the subtle connections between characters and scenes. Truth be told, I'm an absolute sucker for all plays sad and dark (that goth girl's still in there somewhere), but I just found the cumulative experience of the play and its themes so incredibly moving and important. It's a play about parent-child relationships and how the past molds (and sometimes consumes) the future, but it's also subliminally about the environment, its impending collapse. Bovell draws a line between natural disasters and the rifts within families; even a character's quick, droll comment about the weather reverberates in this really amazing, terrifying way.
I don't think enough was made of the play's environmental message when it premiered here---in general I feel like the play kind of came and went, despite mostly positive reviews. It may have been deemed too dense or depressing to move? Whatever the case, I think it deserves another look. We need plays that address the environment, now more than ever. And I just haven't read or seen many plays like this one and honey, I see and read A LOT.
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN! Which plays from the last 15 years do YOU think deserve another production? Geek out with us in the comments!
Photo of On the Mountain by Joan Marcus. Photo of Apparition by Aaron Epstein. Photo of When the Rain Stops Falling by T. Charles Erickson.