There's a small cadre of playwrights whose works, like salmon, swim along national byways through New York City and around the regions. They are The Selected, receiving a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval from sundry dramaturgs, most of whom graduated from the Yale School of Drama and other institutions of its ilk. And suddenly, their plays are being developed in the New Play fortresses such as the Sundance Theatre Institute and at South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival and the Alley Theatre's New Play Initiative in Houston. Names from the latest generation of The Selected that roll off the tongue are Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl and Rajiv Joseph.
These are good playwrights, worthy of support, and the mechanism for their support has been in place for decades. In Joseph's case, it resulted in a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, being premiered (via a $90,000 National Endowment for the Arts Outstanding New Play grant) by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009, before being reprised the following season by the same organization at the Mark Taper Forum, across the city.
Joseph, who was born in 1974 and grew up in Cleveland, spent three formative years in Senegal with the Peace Corps. He has written in various program notes and interviews that these years influenced his aesthetic, which is a blend of realism and surrealism. Bengal Tiger is now on Broadway starring Robin Williams, who plays a tiger ruminating on any number of existential quandaries. It also features a U.S. soldier in Iraq haunted and driven mad by the ghost of the feline, who was shot in his cage. The intriguing dreamscape, as applied to the war in Iraq, masks a tone that ricochets between soulful profundity and glibness.
Another NEA grant has helped support the premiere of Joseph's new play, The Monster at the Door, at Houston's Alley Theatre — the same organization that premiered his 2009 play Gruesome Playground Injuries.
All of which suggests that the new play development system in America's regional theaters involves a kind of collaboration among theaters and granting agencies to support playwrights, perhaps more than plays. That South Coast Rep, for example, not only presents new works by the same playwrights over and over, but also presents so many projects in its Pacific Playwrights Festival that were commissioned before they were written, further exemplifies this syndrome.
Fascinating plays occasionally do emerge from this systematic model of encouragement, and there's an argument to be made that a promising writer should be supported through thick and thin, as a university might invest in a brilliant scholar or inventor, or the way major movie studios used to invest in their stars. But there should be no illusions that the market for new works in the theater has an open door. It is, fundamentally, a kind of literary aristocracy, much in the way that financial services — and their extended industries, from debt services to home mortgages to default swaps — are run by the policies of an elite few.
The larger question raised by this parallel reasoning is whether the elitist manner in which our financial services are administered is really in the best interests of our economy, and whether the coddling of a minority of privileged artists, who are predestined to land the nation's most coveted production slots, is really in the best interests of the theater. Though the former may be motivated by greed, whereas the latter is driven primarily through increasingly pinched opportunities for survival, some larger purpose is being ignored by both.
We can't begin to assess an answer to that question until we see our artistic system change, or open up a bit, and we won't see that happen until the financial underpinnings of how a play gets produced undergo some kind of transformation. I'm holding my breath. Please nudge me before a coma ensues.
The Monster at the Door is a mess, despite having been in the works for a few years, or maybe because of it. The play consists of far too many scintillating ideas that float kaleidoscopically away from an anchoring concept, as though fleeing a fire in the barn.
It starts promisingly enough in the sanctum of a New York–based Goldman Sachs–type investment firm, where Tonise (Rebecca Brooksher) is serving as a curator, interviewing an artist named Maya (Portia) for a commissioned work to be hung in the firm's lobby. Here, Joseph establishes his most trenchant theme, that of willful delusion. Tonise, grasping a shard of broken glass, refuses to acknowledge the reality of what she's holding in her own hand, whereas Maya reveals herself to be a prophet of sorts, inferring the single Tonise's adulterous, dead-end affair with one of the firm's married founders, Fergueson (James A. Stephens), who wanders in sounding imperious.
Quotations in the program point to how mythology consists of lies and delusions, such as one by Jack London: "Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie."
Maya wins the commission, despite her portentous haughtiness, which results in a hanging sculpture consisting of a green wreath of twisted dollar bills, stabbed throughout by a series of red spikes.
The action is really a series of dreams. Fergueson's tax attorney, Jesse (Adam Green), scuba dives in Hawaii (on a rigging-fly system that brings back shudder-inducing associations with Broadway's Spider-Man), seduced into the depths by a dangerous fish seductress. Tonise becomes a Christ-like healer, who absorbs the world's disease and pain into one arm that grows increasingly monstrous. A security guard (Brian Reddy) steals Maya's artwork and flees with it to Paris, to both dissolution and disillusion. There are literary and visual references to Homer's The Odyssey and to the myth of the Sirens.
In an early scene, Fergueson runs into Vinnie the security guard (who just happens to have a paperback of The Odyssey on his desk), and for no particular reason lectures him on the ins and outs of collecting art. Under Daniella Topol's direction, at least, he has no reason to do so, other than to follow the script. And this is where the logic of human interaction so unravels that the logic of dreams that follows can find no current, even in the watery depths of Hawaii.
I wasn't in Houston long enough to see works in the smaller theaters there. A number of locals insist that some of the best work is emerging from the comparatively unsubsidized smaller theaters. For most Angelenos, this theme will sound strikingly familiar. The larger question is whether the world premiere of this production at a legacy theater such as the Alley is the best use of resources for what's so clearly a work in process.
THE MONSTER AT THE DOOR | By Rajiv Joseph | Presented by the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave., Houston | Through May 29 | (713) 228-9341 | alleytheatre.org