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The Obie winner on her very busy season on Broadway and beyond
According to director Lila Neugebauer, her way into a play ideally begins with the same question: Why? "It's a 'Why?' that's alive and urgent and immediate and unavoidably personalized," she explains. She's been asking herself, "Why?" a lot over the past few months as she works on a trio of disparate shows: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' dysfunctional family drama Appropriate, currently running at Second Stage's Hayes Theater; Itamar Moses' The Ally, an exploration of social justice strife that begins previews at The Public Theater next month; and Heidi Schreck's reimagining of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, opening at Lincoln Center Theater in April.
All three enable Neugebauer to work with living writers, collaborations she values deeply. But each requires a distinct vision. That helps keep Neugebauer balanced and engaged. "Fortuitously, they ask very different things of me as a director," she says. "My job is to respond to the particular inquiries of each play, which are very different animals."
Neugebauer's busy schedule was born out of her friendships with the playwrights. She met Jacobs-Jenkins at the 2013 Humana Festival where Appropriate premiered and went on to direct his play Everybody at Signature Theatre a few years later. She has also known Scheck for many years: One of Neugebauer's early New York credits was assistant directing Scheck's 2009 play Creature and the two lived as neighbors in the same Park Slope brownstone for nearly a decade. "A lot of our artistic chats were stoop chats," Neugebauer recalls.
While this is Neugebauer's first time collaborating with Moses, she's been with The Ally since early in its development. Written long before October 7, it's the eerily timely tale of a progressive Jewish-American college professor who gets caught up in campus unrest surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. "Moses began this play not because he had the answers to any of these questions, but because he didn't," she says, explaining the 'Why?' that attracted her to the work.
Jacobs-Jenkins, Schreck and Moses all praise her fastidious approach to their scripts, respectively describing Neugebauer's "investment in language as a tool," "her precision with language" and how she "meticulously digs into every moment."
Jacobs-Jenkins recalls being impressed by a production of Appropriate she directed at Julliard. "I thought it really gave the New York premiere [at Signature Theatre in 2014] a run for its money with just a bunch of students," he says. "I was like, you're on the wavelength of the play." That's what inspired him to ask her to direct the current Broadway staging. He says friends who saw previous mountings of Appropriate have admitted they never fully got the play until they saw Neugebauer's version. Even Jesse Green, the chief theatre critic for The New York Times, wrote an article about how this production, which he loved, made him completely rethink his perspective on the show.
An ingenious updating of the classic living-room play starring Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll and Michael Esper as estranged siblings, Appropriate explores the corrosive effects of white supremacy as a family implodes in their late patriarch's junk-filled plantation in southern Arkansas. Neugebauer sees shame as driving the action: "What we will do to protect ourselves from feeling it, and how we try to recover from it—if we ever really can."
While Jacobs-Jenkins credits Neugebauer's ability to convey the deeper meaning of the piece to "her investment in clarity and honoring the text," she also enhances it with bold choices. For example, in a surreal coda long after the family has departed, there's a stunning coup de théâtre that literally breaks open the homestead—a powerful metaphor for everything that came before. According to Jacobs-Jenkins, his script's conclusion "is a provocation to the director and the design team to just show me what they've got. I think she has done an incredible job realizing it. I've seen many productions where I could feel the teams get lost in the challenge. She got very quickly the story that ending was trying to tell."
According to Neugebauer, fear is what propels The Ally, both thematically and for her personally. When Moses first approached her about directing the show five years ago, she recalls being scared to take on a play that dealt with such a charged topic. But she ultimately embraced the challenge. As she puts it: "Certain kinds of fear are telling you where you might have an opportunity to learn something."
The current Israel-Hamas War has added additional layers of complexity to the play, which stars Josh Radnor as the teacher caught up in conflicts of tribalism. Neugebauer knows that what she is asking of her artists and audiences is particularly fraught right now. But she sees The Ally as a chance to "embark on an act of radical bravery" by hearing other points of view. "We might, in listening, come to learn something about ourselves," she says.
Moses describes Neugebauer as a "fierce advocate" for her projects. "Working with her, one feels incredibly supported in a way that also makes a writer receptive to being pushed," he shares.
Schreck concurs. "If something doesn't make sense to Lila—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—she refuses to move on until it does. I adore that about her," Schreck says. "It's a huge gift as a translator to work with a director who examines each word a character speaks so deeply."
Long fascinated by Chekhov and his "unanswerable existential dilemmas," Neugebauer had little professional experience with his work until a conversation with Lincoln Center Theater's Artistic Director, André Bishop, prompted her to revisit his major plays with an eye toward directing one. She was immediately drawn to Uncle Vanya.
"I felt disarmed by how contemporary the psychologies of the characters felt to me," she remembers. "Their particular anguishes and hilarities, their embarrassments, their frailties, their foibles and their heartbreaks. They felt like people I knew."
Neugebauer immediately brought Schreck on to the project as she wanted to work with a living translator. Fortunately, in addition to being an acclaimed playwright and performer, Schreck is fluent in Russian and spent much of her twenties working as a journalist in St. Petersburg. "Heidi has really lived and breathed these plays," Neugebauer says.
Although they're still in preproduction—star Steve Carell and his castmates won't begin rehearsing until next month—Schreck is already appreciative of Neugebauer's "open and alive and truthful and very collaborative" directing style.
She could be speaking for all the playwrights currently working with Neugebauer. While other directors may prefer dead dramatists, Neugebauer believes "collaboration is dynamic" and she thrives on that. It's the "Why?" of what she does.
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