Mary Laws' newest play holds up a funhouse mirror to that most cherished of American institutions: the wholesome suburban family.
A self-described “big-time Texan” (“I fucking love Texas,” she says), Laws, who's just 30, moved to L.A. following graduation from the Yale School of Drama to pursue a career in screenwriting. She now writes for AMC’s Preacher and NBC’s Patient Zero, but she was eager to maintain her ties to the theater community. So she sought out Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village, a group known for taking chances on emerging writers.
Laws wrote Blueberry Toast, her dark absurdist comedy now playing at the Echo through Oct. 24, in just two days while at Yale. Directed by Dustin Wills, her grad school classmate, the play follows a nuclear family on a cartoonishly domestic set as a hot breakfast turns progressively more violent. As the adults squabble in the kitchen, siblings Jack and Jill stage a play of their own.
Earlier this year, Laws spoke with us about growing up an outsider in suburbia, the loss of childhood innocence and the character she most identifies with. (The interview has been condensed and rearranged for clarity.)
Tell me a little bit about the play itself — about the literal plot, and what you were trying to do with it.
It’s about a middle-class suburban family — which sounds really boring, but it’s not, I promise. The play is about a woman who makes breakfast for her husband, and he doesn’t want it. And throughout the course of the play she continues to try to get him to eat this breakfast that she’s made — blueberry toast — and he won’t and he won’t and he won’t. It just sort of turns into this chaotic conversation about what the American Dream looks like and how desperate we are to be loved and accepted. I don’t know, it’s got a lot of shit. It’s definitely dark, it’s definitely absurd, it’s very funny.
What motivated you to write this?
I had been reading the Ted Hughes adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses while I was writing this play, and I was just totally fascinated by the way that Ovid changes people into animals and animals into people — so the rage of a man can turn him into a bear, and a mother and son can fly up and become stars in the sky. As I was writing Blueberry Toast, I was thinking a lot about the way that humans treat each other, and the way that humans can often treat each other like animals or in an inhumane way. So that became a big part of the play as well.
I grew up in the suburbs, in this town called the Woodlands, which is like a master-planned community. I was captivated by this sort of veneer that was over the town all the time. This was supposedly the version of the American Dream that everyone wanted to have, and yet there was a lot of darkness, a lot of depression, a lot of drug abuse and unhappy marriages. I have always been fascinated by where I grew up, because my family and I were never really part of that world, so we had a bit of an outside eye.
Why didn’t your family feel part of the planned-community culture?
Well, I grew up relatively poor. I didn’t grow up on welfare or anything — we weren’t without ever. But we didn’t have a great deal of money. My parents are both United Methodist ministers. They’re incredible people who’ve basically sacrificed a lot of financial stability in order to care for other people in really low-paying jobs their whole lives. When we moved to this master-planned community, it was in the earlier days. It grew into this extremely wealthy suburb. There were a lot of blessings. But my parents didn’t really subscribe to a lot of the trivialities or materialism.
You’ve said that a lot of people find the play’s ending problematic, and you think it’s because the play isn’t as feminist as some people want it to be. Were you trying to make a comment about femininity?
I think people wish that I was, but I wasn’t. I’m just making a comment about how I see the world. But I am feminist, and so I feel like everything that comes out of me is through a feminist lens, just like I’m also a Christian, so everything that comes out of me comes through the lens of a person of faith.
I do have this memory of being a young girl and hearing something that another person had done, and sort of experiencing devastation in a way that I hadn’t before. The expression that your world shatters around you, it feels like that. You can hear it. You can actually hear that sound of what you know to be "truth with a capital T" breaking down. I think I deal with that in a lot of my plays — the moment where childhood fantasy merges with the horrors of being an adult in the world. You lose your childhood, you lose your innocence, you lose your imagination, you lose the freedom of just being. You begin at that point to forget about how magnificent everything in the world is created.
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Would you say the play is more about the kids than the adult characters?
There are many days that I think it’s about the little boy, Jack. He is the one who seems to be writing the play in a way. He’s writing the kids’ play. He’s the one who’s the most aware of what’s actually going on, whereas all the other characters either have growing awareness or they have no awareness at all. A lot of days I think I am that little boy character of Jack. Then other days I think, no, I’m actually all the characters.
What’s your next project?
I’m really interested in Phaedra. A lot of playwrights have done adaptations of it — Racine, Eugene O’Neill, Sarah Kane. It’s about an older woman who falls in love with her stepson while her husband is away. I’m always very interested in female sexuality. In some versions they have an affair, in some versions it’s very chaste, in some versions she says that he raped her. In some versions it’s very bloody — the husband comes home and murders everyone, or murders the stepson. I think in one version he gets pulled apart by wild horses. It’s very brutal and dark and bloody, so I love it.