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Interview: Will Roland and Max Friedman Bring The Panic of '29 to 59

Graham Techler's new play runs off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.

Collaborators for well over a decade, director Max Friedman and actor Will Roland are currently working together on Less Than Rent Theater's off-Broadway production of Graham Techler's The Panic of '29. An alternate history dark comedy, Panic is set in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929 and imagines a world without FDR's New Deal — with zany results. Here, Friedman and Roland tell us about putting this "slapstick Lehman Trilogy meets the Fallout series" together.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Will Roland and Max Friedman
(© Tricia Baron)

What is The Panic of '29?
Max Friedman: I've been calling it a screwball tragedy. It's an alternate history comedy that imagines an America wherein, on October 29, 1929, beginning with the Wall Street Crash, history bends, and in place of the New Deal, an American apocalypse takes place. We follow this hilarious band of misfits, everyone from crime writers to a bar proprietress to cabaret singers and Wall Street secretaries, as they find their way into a collectivist future through an authoritarian regime.

Will Roland: I've been calling it a slapstick Lehman Trilogy meets the Fallout series.

Max: Part of what makes the play great is that, although the subject matter and themes are pretty weighty, it is primarily an afternoon or evening of entertainment.

How did you both get involved with this piece?
Max: Less Than Rent has been developing the play with Graham for a while, and I have been developing two of Graham's other plays. He'd been working on the script for quite a while, though he was kind of keeping this one to himself. It came to me about nine months ago and we had the opportunity to do two table reads, and now we're really guns blazing. When I read the script, one of the first things I felt was Will's voice leaping off the page at me in the role of Jimmy Armstrong. Graham says that Jimmy is sort of like his stand-in, and Will does a really good job of being Graham's voice in the action.

Will: I was so tickled by the script from the very beginning. Graham's style is truly unique. You can feel his roots as a humorist in the way that the dialogue exists. The language is incredibly dense, which I have an absolute blast with. Every line is like five sentences long. He's a wordsmith who loves language and loves to play with repetition. So the combination of Graham's style with the content of the play. I'm really preoccupied by society and economics and group social contracts, and this play is interested in how individual people exists within social contacts, within economies, within rules of law, and what happens when certain elements crumble and break apart.

The whole cast is a group of old friends and new. Max and I obviously have a long, wonderful working relationship and collaboration. Olivia Puckett is another friend of ours, who came in and did an early reading, but then also auditioned and was in consideration for many roles. You guys had a robust audition process for this.

Max: We did. What made the process and this company is amazing is that it is a combination of folks I've worked with for years, and also some folks who sent in a tape and then came into the audition room with an electricity that was undeniable.

Olivia Puckett and Will Roland in The Panic of '29 at 59E59 Theaters
(© Carol Rosegg)

What is it like to do this play now, with everything that's going on in the world?
Max: I had a really great experience last night. There's a lot of abolitionist humor in the play, and, frankly, a lot of anti-police ideology throughout the play. I had the experience of sitting behind a gentleman who clearly felt a way about that, and I thought that it was good. The art is doing what the art is wanting to do. I see people laughing and having an amazing time, but then we have somebody who is wrestling with the politics of it, and that's what I think theater is wanting to be about, especially in those times.

Will: I like the things that makes people have to actually think and wrestle with the subject, and the alternate history nature of it gives us a room to play that is usually afforded by sci-fi.

Max: It's not lost on me that we're doing this in the shadow of Trump Park Avenue literally around the corner. I walk past it all the time and I kind of love it. We're here on the Upper East Side surrounded by folks who may not be politically aligned with the makers of the play, but may still find some delight in what we're doing.

Why should people come see The Panic of '29?
Will: This play is simultaneously an escapist fantasy and a thoughtful, critical piece of theater. I keep saying, if we do a bad job, you will just laugh for a couple hours. And if we do a good job, you will laugh and maybe also think a little.

Max: I think you should come see the play because it goes without saying how important it is to encourage and inspire new voices, and Graham is a new voice that is certainly worth producing and being an audience for. And there's so much incredible work happening on that stage. I am floored by our cast, from the veterans like Will and Erik Lochtefeld and Olivia Puckett to the people making their off-Broadway debuts. Everybody's operating at an incredibly high level of talent and commitment to the style and anachronistic sense of language.

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