Seventy-five guests from America’s regional theaters converged on Costa Mesa for South Coast Repertory’s 11th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival last week. These included representatives from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, Primary Stages and Manhattan Theatre Club, Denver Center Theatre, a nine-member delegation from Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, and so on. The seven works on display were all commissioned by the theater and included two mainstage productions, Kate Robin’s What They Have and Richard Greenberg’s The Injured Party; a workshop production of Sharr White’s Sunlight; and readings of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie; John Kolvenbach’s Goldfish and Amy Freed’s You, Nero.
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Who's the injured party? Wealthy Grandmother (Cynthia Harris), or foundering grandson (Reg Rogers)?
The reason for this harmonic convergence of artists and scouts, explained South Coast Repertory’s literary manager, Megan Monaghan, was the host theater’s intention to help launch these works with multiple productions across America, thereby making it possible for these very good playwrights to sustain themselves in the theater, rather than having to abandon it for film and television.
Interviews with the playwrights in last year’s festival revealed how, in movie-studio fashion, artists’ conciliations can trump their imaginations — what emerges on the stage sometimes comes from a collision of the writer’s passion, the sensibilities of the theater staff and the playwrights’ desire to please the theater staff.
In the four plays I caught over the weekend, I was struck by the quality of an echo chamber, the similarity of the voices of the scribes, whose characters — far too eager to explain everything in their knotty hearts — spoke with pithy erudition and in sarcastic bon mots, as though, despite American dialects, they had been airlifted from England at some point between the two world wars, from a boulevard comedy by Noël Coward or Oscar Wilde.
This may be one consequence of the commissioning process. Aside from the pressures on a playwright to conform to some expressed or imagined standard, a commission may also place an unfair burden on a talented playwright to come up with something. (Some commissions start with an idea, some “revolving commissions” — turn in one play, get funded for the next — start with nothing.) Perhaps a commitment not just to funding playwrights but also to finding plays would result in a wider pool of talent and a broader range of theatrical expressions — if it isn’t naive to presume those are even goals.
This year’s monochromatic festival overflowed with good playwrights, but it was tough to find a play that revealed rather than explained its larger purpose, that engaged us in a kind of theatrical imagination that conjures rather than merely argues.
The Injured Party is Exhibit A from an excellent playwright (Richard Greenberg, Three Days of Rain) who is just coasting. Set in New York, it opens with a speech by a slightly fey, hoarse-throated young man named Seth (Reg Rogers). Seth’s family — genetic and adopted — stand around him in tableau on an elevated platform bordered by three walls that don’t touch the floor. By having lighting designer Ben Stanton throw some lurid splashes of color onto those walls, director Trip Cullman makes it clear that we’re peering through the looking glass of Seth’s conscience and subconsciousness.
Seth’s soliloquy — so pregnant with irony, the guy looks ready to drop — is an apology to his sweet, puddle-brained friend, Becca (Marin Ireland), for his inappropriate anger during a cab ride. What quickly emerges is a continuation of Seth’s ire toward his 94-year-old grandmother, Maxine (Cynthia Harris), who is wealthier than God, and whose needy eccentricities are partly explained by her ex-husband’s necrophilia.
At stake is her inheritance, while Seth’s future entitlement to it is confounded by her habit of adopting adult children, including flip-do’d redhead Bettina (Caroline Lagerfelt) — oblivious that all of those in Maxine’s circle is so aware of Bettina’s kleptomania, they purchase inexpensive items for her to steal. Seth, meanwhile, is tormented by his grandmother’s skepticism about his conceptual-art project, which is so far merely conceptual; he could make it happen if only hehad a small house of his own, instead of a simple apartment. Grandma could easily buy him a house, but is unmoved by his plight. As a consequence, he fantasizes about murdering her. Still, because it’s a bittersweet comedy, they do take nice walks in the park.
Greenberg’s play, ostensibly about the delusions of wanting and the inadequacies of having, contains some funny lines and overly familiar eccentrics who are really just bundles of nerves with a gift for repartee and a New York state of mind. Cullman’s staging is extremely stylish.
The play eventually settles onto Seth, Becca and their adopted child in a denouement that goes on for days. With magical snowfalls outside and inside the windows, we’re to infer that this is a mystical work about family and ennui, you know, like in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Believe that connection if you want. I didn’t.
The reading of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (co-commissioned by South Coast Repertory and Baltimore’s Center Stage) toyed with the sumptuous paradox of black actors in 1933 Hollywooddesperate to be cast in the movies, even as maids and slaves. They know better, but a job’s a job, and there’s a depression out there. The drama hones in on a Gone With the Wind–like epic called The Belle of New Orleans, and the decision by African-Amerian Vera Stark to commit an act of dissent — revolution, even — through the subtext of her performance as maid to a white woman. Act 2 flings us into two different discussions in two later eras — a TV talk show and an academic panel — dissecting the significance of Stark’s life and performance. One looks forward to a future version by Nottage, when the deadly analysis of By the Way is converted into a viable dramatic form; then, this play could soar.
Sharr White’s Sunlight, presented in a beautifully acted workshop directed by David Emmes, plucks the issue of political torture from the op-ed section of any daily newspaper and filters it through the saga of an embattled, liberal college president (Robert Foxworth) who has engaged in unseemly behavior , trashing the office of the law-school dean (Robert Curtis Brown) — who’s also his son-in-law — because the dean espouses a legal philosophy condoning water-boarding and applying electrical charges to the genitals of terrorist suspects. The play tracks the countdown to the president’s inevitable dismissal by the board of regents, and the ushering in of a new conservative era in the college and, by implication, the country.
It’s hard to believe that the entire law school would support this dean, as it happens in the play, but that’s an easily reparable nuance. I also couldn’t buy Sunlight’s implicit outrage that we’re entering a new, barbaric age, when we’re actually continuing a legacy of torture we started with manifest destiny, before exporting it to the Philippines and then Latin America and points beyond.
The larger paradox of such literal plays is that — bereft of allegory and the more poetic qualities of a fable, by the time they reach the stage, they’re already yesterday’s news.
White is, nonetheless, a very gifted writer, as the standing ovation for Sunlight signified. His gifts will become more evident when he envisions this play in terms larger than the daily headlines.
THE INJURED PARTY | By RICHARD GREENBERG | SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 Towne Center Dr., Costa Mesa | Through May 11 | (714) 708-5555