Three Young Playwrights Storm Off-Broadway
The aspiring American playwright is a rare breed these days. Many gifted young dramatists head directly for Hollywood where television and film, though hard to break into, offer huge financial rewards. But not all is lost, for Off-Broadway this season is taking a chance on three brave and gifted young writers, all under 30 -- a treat for audiences seeking fresh voices from a new generation of playwrights. They are David Lindsay-Abaire, Daniel Goldfarb, and Jessica Goldberg, and they each make their Off-Broadway debut with funny, moving and thought-provoking works.
David Lindsay-Abaire's play, Fuddy Meers, runs through January 2 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II and will transfer to the Minetta Lane Theatre for an open-ended commercial run as of January 28. A dark comedy about a woman with a rare form of psychogenic amnesia who attempts to regain her memory while surrounded by a bizarre cast of friends, enemies, and perhaps worst of all, family members, the cast is headed by J. Smith Cameron (of As Bees in Honey Drown fame) and also offers some incredible comic performances by Mary Louise Burke and Mark McKinney (of "Kids in the Hall" fame).
An unusually modest and self-effacing young man of 30, from Boston, Lindsay-Abaire got the idea for Fuddy Meers from a news program about a rare form of amnesia. Eight months after he first heard about it, he decided to write about it, focusing on how the family of someone with this disorder would react and be affected. Critics have been affected by the play too: Ben Brantley of the The New York Times described Fuddy Meers as "willfully silly, fresh, zingy."
Lindsay-Abaire seems unfazed by his good fortune, however. "I am really pleased with the production and I'm happy that people seem to be understanding the play," he says.
Like many plays by emerging playwrights, Fuddy Meers had quite a long development history on its way to Off-Broadway. First, the play was begun at Juilliard, where Lindsay-Abaire possessed one of the few, highly-prized playwriting fellowships that the institution awards each year. The play was further developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center where it received a workshop production.
Before this good fortune, Lindsay-Abaire was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and for a long time was no stranger to downtown theater. "When I did plays before [on Off-Off Broadway], there was one person doing the jobs of five people," he says, summing up the difference between Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. "At Manhattan Theatre Club [an Off-Broadway theater], there are five people doing one person's job...There was a hands-on quality about doing theater downtown. At MTC, the play goes on without me; it's not my play anymore."
Daniel Goldfarb, an energetic 26-year-old from Toronto, has less experience in the world of downtown theater. In his eight years in New York City, he has stuck close to the academic world, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at New York University and then, like Lindsey-Abaire, earning a playwriting fellowship to Juilliard.
His most recent play, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, running through January 2 in a Blue Light Theater Company production at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, is a comedy about a Jewish movie mogul who hires a gentile screenwriter to pen a film about anti-Semitism in America. What ensues is their engaging, funny, and ultimately moving series of meetings about the script and about themselves. The play stars Ron Leibman (of Angels in America fame) as movie mogul Sam Baum. The play is set in 1946, a year after the Holocaust became history and a year before the House Un-American Activities Committee began its purge of left-wing Hollywood writers.
Goldfarb was inspired to write Adam Baum... after Ring Lardner, Jr., the screenwriter, visited a class of Goldfarb's at NYU and told the students an anecdote about how, years ago, Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary MGM mogul, hired him to write a movie about anti-Semitism; after Lardner completed the script, Goldwyn complained that it was too Jewish.
Initially, Adam Baum... was championed by Tony Kushner, one of Goldfarb's professors at NYU, who eventually gave the script to actor Ron Leibman. Three years and three directors later (the roster includes Daniel Sullivan, Joe Mantello and, now, Brian Kulick), Goldfarb is wise beyond his years about "process": "All the people who have been involved with the play have taught me a lot about it," he says. "All of them have made the play better and I am grateful for that."
Jessica Goldberg's play, Refuge, which ran at Playwrights Horizons through December 12, initially had a hard time finding theatrical refuge at all. "I was rejected everywhere until I won the [Susan Smith] Blackburn Prize," she says, referring to the prestigious annual prize given to women playwrights, whose past recipients include Marsha Norman ('night, Mother) and Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive ).
But everything changed for Goldberg, an intense and charming 26-year-old from Woodstock, New York, after she won. Almost immediately, Refuge was offered numerous workshops, publication, and the now-concluded production at Playwrights Horizons. "It's amazing how after a play is validated, people are suddenly interested," she notes.
A dark comedy about a less-than-functional family set in the bleaker regions of upstate New York, the play focuses on Amy, an eldest daughter who becomes a surrogate mother for her sarcastic, sickly brother and pill-popping sister after Mom and Dad retire to Florida. Then Amy meets a drifter named Sam. He wants in, she wants out, and their "refuge" lies somewhere in-between.
Refuge featured some fine young actors, including Christopher Bauer, Catherine Kellner, and Mandy Siegfried, and was directed by Neil Pepe, the artistic director of The Atlantic Theatre Company.
Like Goldfarb, Goldberg came to Manhattan to study at NYU, and, like Goldfarb and Lindsey-Abaire, sought creative uplift and refuge in The Juilliard School's much-touted playwriting program. Still, she alternates between feeling optimistic about a career in theater and deep worried about it. "I have a lot of financial problems and it's okay for now," she says, "but it won't always be okay." Despite her Off-Broadway success, she says she hopes to eventually find work in television and film to supplement her income.
All three playwrights credit their Juilliard years as pivotal to their development as writers. A free, two-year fellowship, the program consists of a weekly workshop headed by playwrights Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman as well as bi-monthly "labs" where playwrights can hear their work read by students and alumni of the school.
"It was at Juilliard that I began to take myself seriously as a writer. I felt I actually could call myself a playwright," Goldberg says. "As a writer, you often feel like you are engaged in a futile process...at Juilliard, I began to feel less futile." Lindsay-Abaire concurs: "Being in the presence of other playwrights inspired and encouraged me to keep writing," he says. As for Goldfarb, he became such a fan of the program that he has now started working as its literary manager.
These three talented dramatists, with diverse and varied voices, give hope to the future of American drama. It may no longer be possible for a playwright to make a living in the theater, but all three of these writers have made it clear that their first love is the stage and that no matter where their writing may take them, they want to make the theater their home.