Andy Murray and Zac Jaffee in The Hopper Collection
(Photo © Bill Faulkner)
Andy Murray and Zac Jaffee in The Hopper Collection
(Photo © Bill Faulkner)
"Edward Hopper's paintings are inherently dramatic," says playwright Mat Smart. "I always have the sense that something is about to happen or has just happened and that, for the people in the paintings, something significant will be different for them from now on." Smart's The Hopper Collection, currently receiving its world premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theater, is inspired by the works of the 20th-century American realist painter and specifically by Hopper's 1947 piece "Summer Evening," which depicts a young couple on a porch. "I saw it and couldn't leave it," says Smart. "I kept thinking about it and looking at it, and I kind of drew the play out of it."

The Hopper Collection centers around a wealthy middle-aged couple who own the "Summer Evening" painting and who are extremely reluctant to let others see it. However, after receiving a letter from a young man suffering from cancer, they agree to let him and a young woman who accompanies him view the work. "It's really a love story," says Smart. "All these different people are either ruined or saved by one or two small incidents in their lives, and they collide on this one evening."

Although the New York-based Smart has produced a number of different plays with his company Slant Theatre Project, he considers The Hopper Collection to be his "first professional production." He wrote it as his M.A. Thesis project at the University of California San Diego; an actor friend passed the script on to another actor who, in turn, gave it to some people she knew at Magic. The theater did an in-house reading of the piece and then decided to produce it as part of its season, directed by Magic's artistic director Chris Smith.

Following the San Francisco run, the play will have another production in the spring at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, directed by Daniel Aukin. Smart has made some cuts and rewrites during the rehearsal and preview period, partly as a result of audience response. "It's a new play, and audiences don't quite know what they're in for -- whether it's a comedy or serious," he says. "It's kind of both, and we've gotten better letting people know early on that their laughter is welcome."

-- D.B.

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Nesbitt Blaisdell and Jeremiah Wigginsin The Art of Sacrifice
(Photo © megpix.com)
Nesbitt Blaisdell and Jeremiah Wiggins
in The Art of Sacrifice
(Photo © megpix.com)
You don't have to be a chess fan to appreciate how playwright Anthony Clarvoe uses the game to explore dysfunctional family dynamics in The Art of Sacrifice, now playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, a suburb of Boston. "The play draws an analogy between chess and bad parenting," says Clarvoe. "A good chess player demonstrates his knowledge and values by the choices he makes, and so does a good parent. But a chess player does this in an effort to beat somebody, to prove that he or she is right and other people are wrong. This is not such a good way to live in a family."

In the play, an American chess master visits his aging father during the middle of a major tournament. The reason for his unexpected homecoming is not immediately clear; it could be for a dose of motivation, or to confront a history of abuse. "The two characters wield their conflicting ideas and memories like tactical moves and strategic plans," says the playwright. "It's a very emotional match between two very cagey men."

Clarvoe claims he's "no more than a serious hobby player" but that the game's notion of sacrifice -- explicated in Rudolf Spielmann's classic chess strategy book The Art of Sacrifice in Chess -- appeals to him. "The greatest beauty comes from a player's discovery of a way to sacrifice material strength, the pieces he or she has now, for some later advantage only visible to the mind's eye," states the playwright. "This strikes me as the essence of the difference between impulse and responsibility, between childishness and maturity. But, at the same time, making a sacrifice takes courage and a belief in your superior insight as to what really matters."

For this world premiere production, Clarvoe has been on hand, doing some small rewrites "but mostly serving as a dramaturg, chess consultant, and an extra pair of eyes." He reports that, in addition to the onstage drama, there has been some offstage tumult. "We had to let an actor go less than a week before our first performance," he says. "That actor was himself a replacement for someone we lost less than a week before rehearsals began -- and this is a two-character play. It's remarkable how positive everyone's been and how well we've stayed focused on the work. But, you know, yikes!"

-- D.B.

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Kelly Komlen, Michael Hodge,and Leah Smith in Heart Attack
(Photo © Bruce Millan)
Kelly Komlen, Michael Hodge,
and Leah Smith in Heart Attack
(Photo © Bruce Millan)
R.W. Burda's Heart Attack, now playing at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, tells the story of a fictitious stand-up comic named D'Artagnan (Dart) Hardiman, who collapses on a Las Vegas stage during a nationally televised contest. When he goes back to his apartment, he's greeted by his collection of Marilyn Monroe posters, who spring to life and try to help him pick up the pieces of his (literally and figuratively) broken heart. Their many incarnations teach him about what it means to succeed in America and how to accept the sadness that comes with such knowledge.

Burda, who currently lives in Germany, notes that Gloria Steinem's biography Norma Jean helped shape his understanding of the cultural icon, who is famous as much for her romances with such other icons as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller as for her films. Still, he emphasizes the actress's vulnerability and victimization as central features of her legacy. "She is the teardrop that points to the sadness of a rear-ended America," he says.

Heart Attack is the first of Burda's plays to be produced, "six plays and eleven years" after his first blind submission to Detroit Rep; he found the company's address while thumbing through his copy of Dramatists Sourcebook. Unlike his main character, the playwright has never performed stand-up comedy; in fact, he disdains the form. ("My first title for the play was, a bit foolishly, The Sit-Down Comedy," he says.) But he finds the old dictum "write what you know" to be limiting and counterproductive. "I have no experience of being a woman, or being Asian or African, or starving," he says. "Emily Brontë never held a male hand or put her lips on a man's, yet she wrote of a love between a man and a woman that was so powerful, it reached beyond the grave."

-- A.K.