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Who Has Two Shows Running Off-Broadway Right Now?

Date: Nov 14, 2017

With plays at Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club, Anna Ziegler's a writer to watch


For playwrights, having one show Off-Broadway is a thrill. But two plays running simultaneously at prestigious institutions like Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout Theatre Company? Now that's a coup de théâtre.

"It's been the busiest stretch I've ever had," says Anna Ziegler, whose Actually is at MTC's City Center/Stage II while The Last Match is at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. "On the one hand, it's certainly stressful to put two plays up at the same time. But it's also thrilling, and if I'm frustrated about one, I can just turn to the other one. So I think it's diluting the intensity of having one play on in a strange way."

Appropriately, The Last Match and Actually also involve intense couplings. In the former, an American tennis great nearing retirement faces off against a rising Russian talent in a men's semifinal match at the U.S. Open. The latter focuses on two Princeton freshmen -- an African-American man on scholarship and a privileged white woman -- on opposing sides of a university hearing about whether their sexual encounter was rape. Both plays are one acts in which characters break the fourth wall and address the audience for large chunks of text. But Ziegler says their similarities go deeper than that.

"They are both an attempt to get access to people that we don't usually have access to," she explains. "The match and the hearing are both settings that [most people] would only be on the outside of. But also, in both of them, it's more about the experience or process of what these people are going through than the outcome."

Although the plot of Actually may seem ripped from recent headlines, Ziegler came up with the idea in 2015 during a Lark Play Development Center workshop when she was assigned to pen a play in a week. "I decided I would write a two-character play, which I'd never done before, and that it would be largely a monologue play, also something I hadn't done before," she says. For research, she had an in-house consultant: her husband, a New York University lawyer who handles cases of alleged sexual misconduct.

Despite its hot-button topic, Ziegler insists she didn't write Actually with an agenda in mind. Instead, she put any preconceived notions aside, allowed each character to have his or her say, and ended up with equal amounts of sympathy for both. "I think if I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to write the play," she says. "My hope is that's the audience's experience too, that they are surprised at various points by who they have sympathy for and why." (HBO executives certainly connected with Actually when it played Los Angeles's Geffen Playhouse earlier this year: The network is developing a series based on the show.)


Compared to Actually, the premise of The Last Match may seem low stakes, yet it demonstrates how tennis, like life, is a test of endurance. Amid the intensity of a five-set, hours-long singles match, the rivals reveal their off-court struggles and interact with their respective partners. Ziegler, who played tennis throughout her teens in Brooklyn, knew what it felt like to square off against an opponent. "That sort of emotional landscape always appealed to me as a backdrop for a play," Ziegler says, adding that she wasn't the most competitive of players. "Really, if I was going to compete I preferred playing doubles. It felt a lot less stressful."

She also took inspiration from Andy Roddick's retirement speech at the U.S. Open in 2012, a time when Ziegler was going through her own life transition. "I was either just pregnant with my first child or about to be, and there was something so moving in this notion of a guy who was about my age leaving behind the life that he'd known," says Ziegler, who now has two kids ages 4 and 1, and still lives in Brooklyn. "It felt like [he was] leaving his childhood behind. There was something that resonated with me in thinking about having a child and putting a phase of my life behind me."

Although Ziegler has had other plays run in New York (A Delicate Ship and Dov and Ali at Playwrights Realm, Boy at Keen Company), her highest-profile work is Photograph 51. While it enjoyed a brief Off-Off Broadway production at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2010, a 2015 mounting in London starring Nicole Kidman as famed genetic scientist Rosalind Franklin was long rumored to be crossing the pond until the star bowed out. As of now "there are no definite plans," Ziegler says about a Broadway run with another lead. "But it's not impossible."

Even without a Main Stem credit, Ziegler's doing awfully well, especially considering she almost didn't become a playwright at all. She says she owes her career to recent Theater Hall of Fame inductee Arthur Kopit, whose playwriting class she took "on a bit of a whim" during her senior year at Yale. He also taught for NYU's graduate dramatic writing program and encouraged her to apply. "That changed the course of my life," says Ziegler. "I was not planning to be a playwright. I knew that I loved writing, but I didn't really know what kind of writing I was going to do. I think if it hadn't been for Arthur, I might still be writing poetry and working at a small literary journal."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Last Match. Go here to browse our current offers.

Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her on Twitter at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha in Actually. Photo by Matthew Murphy.