One of the most heartening and potentially exciting things in reporting on theatre is discovering new voices. Everyone laments–fairly–that there are too few new plays and writers whose work make it to Broadway. Which is why a show like HAND TO GOD was important. Even though it didn’t ultimately win the Tony as best play, most audiences clearly enjoy the highly original work by Robert Askins….a fresh name for many of us.
Granted, few shows of ANY kind ever make it to Broadway or remain there for long. Those that do tend to come from well known names who understandably make investors and producers feel more secure. Off-Broadway–as well as in many venues around the country–are where we see and hear new works. Even when they are not always fully formed, you sense that you are listening to something raw and often special.
This past week I saw several plays in New York written by folks we will definitely be hearing from for years to come. Branden jacobs-Jenkins is just 30 years old and he’s already won off- Broadway awards for his shows Appropriate and An Octoroon. And now his latest one, Gloria, has just had its run extended at the Vineyard on E. 15th street
While far from perfect, Gloria shows a real talent at work. This is a two and a half act piece, and progresses chronologically. The first takes place inside a magazine office in 2010, where an assortment of six characters gossip, snipe at one another, and bemoan their profession: (“No one reads magazines for the truth”) and reveal their ambitions and insecurities. (“I’ll die if I’m 30 and still in a cubicle.” “Now I have to fact check the fact checkers!”) “And about those unpaid interns, one character muses, “they’re too entitled to do any real work.”
It’s fair to call Gloria a biting sitcom in the first act, until an unexpected and violent outburst occurs, shocking characters and audiences alike. I won’t disclose anymore, though suffice to say it seems eerily prescient. The second act takes place eight months later, as three of the magazine’s former staffers find themselves at a Starbucks, where they testily compare the books they are writing about the incident. For the final addendum, we are in the present time at a Hollywood production office where the same subject matter is now fodder for potential television series.
The playwright’s ideas are compelling and highly contemporary: how we quickly turn grief and loss into material to be packaged, sold and viewed; How the victims of a terrible tragedy choose what they remember; how they play with the facts; How odd heroes are made. (“Why does dying make someone interesting”?) “Have you considered turning this into something”? is the recurring question for characters trying to capitalize on a tragedy they may have been only tangentially part of.
Good ideas all, though the script could have gone through another draft or two, made sharper and run deeper. Branden Jacobs-jenkins is understandably hot, and non- profit companies like the Vineyard must be thrilled to get one of his works as quickly as it comes off the press. However, words can be smart on the page but come off as less than organic on stage. Still, his career is taking off and there will be much ahead.
The same can be said of Joshua Harmon, who is 32 and whose new play Significant Other is now at the Laura Pels, produced by the ever resourceful Roundabout Company. Harmon is previously known for Bad Jews, which started off -Broadway and is now doing exceedingly well across the country. Significant Other might be called Sad Gays, but in fact it is much more than that. This one is about four best friends in their late twenties (Think Sex and the City with one of the quartet being a man.) The character of Jordan Berman watches as, over a few years, his three gal pals hook up and head to the altar. As the playwright said after the show, this piece is not really about one’s gender, as much as it is about what it feels like to be the last single standing as one heads into his or her 30s.
This is fine writing…very funny, painful and touching. There are countless memorable lines: “I have found my soul mate. I know that sounds funny since we have nothing to talk about.” “Last night I went out with a guy who says while he’s personally not into cannibalism, he can understand people who are.” “Do you think it’s weird that I want to have kids just so I can discipline them?”
The play is totally contemporary, taking place in New York City today and dealing with a millenial’s various crushes and dating mishaps. But mostly it’s about friendship and the challenges of keeping them intact as the participants find their significant others. While it is not explicitly about being gay, it can be seen as the perfect play to follow the Supreme Court decision last week. Yes, everyone might now have the right to love and marry who they choose. But that also may mean more pressure on the gay community to find the right partners, make the full commitments, and even play new roles in others’ weddings. “How can you be a bridesmaid?” asks one of the young women to Jordan, her best friend. “You can do anything now,” he answers, badly hurt in the play’s most searing confrontation.
Playwright Joshua Harmon says this is a personal if not autobiographical play. Whatever it is, the character of Jordan rings very true. Part of this is due to the sensational performance of Gideon Glick. I can’t believe he won’t be racking up awards. He runs the gamut of emotions and when he wails, “I’m 29 and no one has ever said they love me”–well, that will hit home for folks of all stripes. Glick is a great physical actor: he does a long bit on whether to press the send button on an email to a man crush: “My brain knows I shouldn’t do it but my finger keeps crawling over,” he says in a desperate, unanswered phone call. While there are no explicitly bad Jews in this one, there are plenty of good jokes that will resonate on that score. When Jordan dates a Jewish guy, he notes a kind of shorthand “It just means we can talk about our mothers without it being a buzz kill.”
The show is beautifully directed by Trip Cullman and the actors are impeccable, even when they play seemingly cliché roles: the pushy narcissist; the overweight supportive one; the dour wry one. Lindsay Mendez, Sas Goldberg and Carra Patterson are those girlfriends, who hit every mark and go beyond type. And Barbara Barrie is splendid as always as Jordan’s grandmother. “Don’t die young–but don’t get old” she warns him.
Most these playwrights are emerging for us, but they have obviously been plying their trade for years, and have resumes filled with all kinds of written material, and shows that started in fringe festivals and multiple workshops. Tom Jacobson has one of those resumes though his show The Twentieth Century Way is his first to make it into New York. It’s playing through July 19 at the Rattlesnake theatre. Like Significant Other, The Twentieth Century Way is catching a moment. It is playing smack in the middle of the West Village, a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn–and I saw it on the night of the Supreme Court decision. Not only were the streets outside overflowing with celebrants, the spirit even infused the experience of this play—which dramatizes the actual story of a vice squad in Long Beach, California in 1914, that specifically targeted homosexuals and gay bars.
This is a two character piece, but in fact you get to know at least a dozen. Theoretically, these are two actors who meet before auditioning for some movie project. But they quickly morph into police officers, important long beach figures who were caught in compromising situations, newspaper reporters and editors, and more. There are many metaphorical lines–a few too many: “the heart of improvisation is solving a problem,” “you don’t have to feel, just act like you feel,” “this might not be an audition….this might be an arrest,” “everyone is acting..all the time,” “I don’t exist– I belong in the mind of the audience.” We get it.
A lot of the obvious could be eliminated. There is enough strong material here, including the very fact of this little known attack on, and exposure of, gays in what was considered to be one of the most morally upright and religious of communities. The performances by Will Bradley and Robert Mammana are nothing less than tour de forces. I try not to call actors brave simply because they eventually take all their clothes off. And even though I wish they didn’t have to say the words “naked truth–” it really does make sense here. I hope The Twentieth Century Way picks up traction….especially at this moment in time. The big battles have been won, but it’s always good to recall the little ones fought and lost along the way.
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