New Jersey Repertory Company is a rare commodity these days. With a 64-seat nonprofit theater nestled in Long Branch, the company showcases and develops new plays with the mission to keep theater thought-provoking and important. Established playwrights and new writers have had their works chosen for a mounting at the intimate setting, which has seen 83 plays in just 14 seasons. David Jenkins' middlemen, which was originally produced at New York's Walkerspace in 2009, begins performances at New Jersey Repertory Company on November 7. Jenkins, who is also a cofounding member of the theater group Human Animals, spoke with TheaterMania about his experience working with the NJ Rep and the life that his office-centered black comedy has taken on.
Why did you start Human Animals?
It was a way to produce. I'm the only playwright. We would produce my work, and then self-produce some with some friends. I kind of feel like no one's going to do your work when you're starting to do this because no one really knows what you're doing. Especially if you're doing something kind of different! There's just so much work out there. There's a really good August Wilson quote where he said, "If you want to support a writer, produce the first five plays he writes." When you're producing a play yourself, it feels a little bit more like a band. That's exciting to me. Each individual show is like an album. God bless the people at NJ Rep — those guys, case in point, are out there running a theater. I admire that so much!
The titles of some of your plays are middlemen, Post Office, and Small Claims. It seems that you have a penchant for writing about the everyman in society. What inspired that interest?
I think everyone's an everyman. I like those plays in particular. Those plays are about work, and I'm fascinated by work. It's something that we can all relate to no matter what profession you're in. You probably don't feel like your job is big enough for you, and you probably don't feel like you're able to put your soul into your work, or that your work really embodies who you are as a person — even if you enjoy it! But, it's where we spend the bulk of our time. When I wrote middlemen, I was really interested in what we feel that we're supposed to get from our work, and what we actually get from it. The idea is that we're supposed to follow our passion, and even if we do that, it becomes a job. Work is work. It's not supposed to be fun; you're paying the bills. But if it's fun on top of that, great! When I wrote this play and the economy collapsed, people were getting laid off massively at corporations, [and] it felt like, okay, what are we working for? If there's no security — the entire country is unstable as it is — why do we work? And I think that's a question that everyone can relate to.
What specifically inspired middlemen, which was your first play?
It's kind of a play about financial decline. I wrote it in 2007 when everything was bottoming out, and our first table read of it was up the street from Lehman Brothers while it was collapsing. The day they closed Lehman Brothers, guys were coming out with boxes of their belongings. It felt like there was going to be this inevitable collapse. We were in two wars that we were losing, the housing market had already tanked, we were at the end of the Bush administration, and all the Enron stuff was still in the air. I really thought this play was tied to that place and time, but I'm flattered that people seem to be producing it more now than they did then. It's going up in Norway this winter. It's great that it's had that life.
In addition to running in New York, middlemen has been translated into Belarusian by the Belarus Free Theatre, and premiered in Chile in 2011.
I want to see my work produced by people [who] care about it, [who] can give it the life that it deserves onstage. I'm excited that NJ Rep is doing middlemen…I even feel a little bad for them because I know how hard it is!
How is presenting a play in NJ Rep's intimate theater with sixty-four seats more conducive to a play like middlemen?
I love it. When we put it up in New York we had about forty seats. It was a very claustrophobic performance. I love doing things for smaller houses. I think particularly with this show — it's two guys in one space, and it's hard to do claustrophobia and tension and demonstrate the fact that these guys are deeply bored without inflicting a lot of pain on the audience — but it makes a much more intimate setting. A kind of bunker mentality has set in with these guys, [and] it kind of helps to have a smaller space to make everyone feel like they're in the bunker with them.
Does your next play, Pinewood, follow the same themes about the workplace?
It's about a middle-class family [who] aspires to be an upper-middle class family, but in reality they're going backwards because the jobs just aren't there. But instead of it being an incredibly dark play, I'm starting to wonder, maybe that's okay on one level. Maybe everyone's idea of where they should be in this country is wildly inflated, and we're going through a period of readjustment that's incredibly painful. It's hard to get my mind around it.
middlemen plays New Jersey Repertory Company through December 8.