Abby Rosebrock is diving headfirst into the shark tank of New York theater with her new comedy, Different Animals, now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Rosebrock began her career in comedy writing with the Upright Citizens Brigade, a New York improv theater, where she trained in sketch comedy performance. Different Animals not only marks Rosebrock's off-Broadway debut as both a playwright and an actress, but the production also marks the debut of her first-ever full-length work.
The play follows a friendship that develops between two RomCom-obsessed women floundering through their twenties in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Jessica is cheating on her much older husband, Leo, with a local pastor named Will while Molly (played by Rosebrock herself) becomes obsessed with Jessica's husband and slowly reveals herself as a mentally unstable sociopath. Jessica, Molly, and Leo soon find themselves living a polygamous lifestyle as one big dysfunctional family.
Rosebrock took some time to speak with TheaterMania about how her yen for the topics of sex, romance, and adultery inspired this ambitious project and brought it to the off-Broadway stage. She also explained what it has been like balancing her roles as writer, actor, and daughter during the course of production.
What made you decide to write your first full-length play?
I was in an acting class with Bruce Ornstein and I wrote a few scenes for our scene study class and Bruce encouraged me to write a full-length play, so I drafted an old, very different version a little more than a year ago and then I revised it over the course of a year and we had some developmental readings. Our other producer, Richard Neustadter, saw a reading that we did this past summer in July and liked it enough to back it and brought it to Cherry Lane for us.
And you say it's inspired by your upbringing in South Carolina?
There aren't really events from my upbringing that are dramatized in the play but the way the characters speak and their interests and their involvement in the church…all of these are sort of based on stories that I've heard about other people my parents went to church with and my own upbringing. I heard stories of extramarital affairs from my parents. Especially as I was getting older I'd overhear more conversations about people I'd grown up with.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
I've always loved romantic comedy and stories about sex and romance and adultery. Those are my favorite novels and plays and movies. And I have a soft spot for characters with a lot of angst, dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil, so combining the emotional states that I was most interested in with the genre that I'm most interested in produced this narrative of extreme situations.
So you would call Different Animals a romantic comedy? None of the characters strike me as particularly romantic.
Both female characters talk about romantic comedy in the play…and I think that that obsession affected the way their love lives have turned out. I think they're both actively pursuing a RomCom fantasy in the play. Of course, that's not what they end up with in the traditional sense.
Did you write the play with the intention of performing in it as well?
Yeah. At first I thought I would probably play Jessica instead of Molly, but I ended up liking the extreme character better and thinking she'd be more fun to play, so I took that role [Laughs]. Once I committed to the idea of playing Molly I wrote for her as much as I could.
What was it like during the rehearsal process being both playwright and performer?
I really believe the best dialogue is dialogue that feels real and sounds natural, so hearing actors struggle with certain pieces of dialogue over and over and over again helped me make pretty effective revisions. I think acting in the play helps me revise and write it better and writing the play makes me act it better because I thought so hard about the characters before I even began to learn the lines or commit to a character or rehearse with other actors.
Do you think of yourself as an actor who writes or a writer who acts?
I really love them both so much equally that I would be miserable if I gave up one or the other. [Laughs]
Has your history with improv comedy affected your writing at all?
There are a million ways that improv influenced the play. That's another reason why the characters go to extreme places — because in improv, one is supposed to commit as hard as possible to decisions made up front about a character…There's a kind of scene in improv class called "peas in a pod." It's where two people build a scene out of complete agreement…One person makes a choice and the other person takes on that choice for him or herself and then the two actors amplify that choice for the duration of the scene. Playwriting is usually about conflict and exploring a central conflict so I wanted to bring as much of that opposite thesis as possible to the play. There are a few scenes where characters, even though there's conflict inherent in the situation…are very eagerly finding things in one another that they like and appreciate.
Aside from the comedy, what do you hope the play will communicate to your audiences?
The play is about people who need one another desperately and a lot of times that desperate need for connection makes a person very off-putting and difficult, but I think characters in the play find redemption when they're able to accept the desperation in themselves and other people.
Your characters are very connected to the Internet and social media. Does that relate to the "desperation" you mentioned?
Social media…this is such a cliché…but it makes us feel more connected than we actually are, so a lot of people end up with this very repressed or very secret raw loneliness that they don't know how to deal with because they are, in a sense, connected to thousands of people everyday and have easy access to all sorts of contacts. But intimacy sort of suffers as a result of that. All of the characters are very deeply involved in Internet lives so they have trouble finding intimacy with one another.
How have audiences been responding so far to the risqué humor?
Audiences have loved it for the most part. I think people respond really well to the comedy because I take them to pretty outlandish places. But I think it's done convincingly enough so that people buy this story…and enjoy it without feeling like it's too farfetched. People have [also] really liked the play's take on religion, which is something I kind of set out to accomplish because I haven't seen a lot of nuanced portrayals of religious people in the South recently.
What is it like showing a play like this to your parents?
My family loved it. I was pretty afraid that they would be scandalized. There's one joke about Jesus getting a blow job and my dad was like, "please change that joke." But I think even he's warmed to the racier parts of the script.
Don't show this again.