Birds of a Feather

A field guide to the current burgeoning of new playwriting talent

With the arrival of spring, city bird-watchers can catch glimpses of thrushes, warblers, perhaps even a pileated woodpecker. Yet you needn't be an Audubon Society member to enjoy some of the season's choicest sights. March offers anticipated productions by seven of New York's finest emerging playwrights. Dramas, comedies, musicals, solo performances—these works run the stylistic gamut. The subjects (boxing, depression, VH1, genetic inheritance, tabloid journalism) vary just as widely. Some writers prize language, others character, still others the superlative one-liner. But these distinctions aside, the playwrights are all indelibly contemporary. To aid in the identification of these fresh talents, we offer a field guide. Binoculars not required.


imageWill Eno[age 39]
HABITATThom Pain (based on nothing)
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street
212-239-6200

HABITSFormal experimentation, emphasis on revision, quotability

IDENTIFICATIONEno, who occasionally cat-sits for Edward Albee, describes his characters as sharing his own tendency to "want to say something and then having said it, wanting to change it slightly or turn away from it—a desire to put myself into language and a fear or disgust resulting." And yet anyone who's seen Thom Pain would find his command of language extraordinary, each line honed to knifepoint precision, invoking both Beckettian despair and Albee-esque linguistic clowning.


imageGina Gionfriddo[age 35]
HABITATAfter Ashley
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
212-353-0303

HABITSBlending realism with satire, hipster repartee

IDENTIFICATIONWhen Gionfriddo begins a new play, she tends to start with a moral dilemma or an ethical dilemma that she's conflicted about "and from there characters present themselves." After Ashley began with an examination of the media response to September 11, but soon switched to an acerbic account of one family's tragedy and its televised exploitation. While Gionfriddo's targets—mediatization, violence, the grief industry—may appear obvious, the way she takes aim at them is subtle and bitterly funny.


imageRinne Groff[age 35]
HABITATInky
Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street
212-765-2105

HABITSPassion for dialect and jargon, female protagonists "trying to stave off despair"

IDENTIFICATIONGroff, a veteran of E.R.S. and Target Margin, describes herself as "kind of a research junkie. Often the process for me is just reading, reading, reading until something comes." Her current play proves no exception. It grew out of an interest in the poetry of Muhammad Ali, which led her to study boxing, female violence, nanny crime, and Medea. The result: a play in 15 rounds in which a yuppie couple find themselves saddled with an Ali-obsessed au pair.


imageYoung Jean Lee[age 30]
HABITATPullman, WA
P.S.122, 150 First Avenue
212-477-5288

HABITSFascination with awkwardness, minimal settings, transparent acting

IDENTIFICATIONLee, who performs with the National Theatre of the United States of America, continues her untraditional approach to stagecraft. This premiere grew out of a "really crazy text that was very clearly the result of a diseased mind and not remotely resembling a play." While the subject matter remains mysterious, Lee will reveal that it is a meditation on how to live. She says, "I wanted to make a sort of serious and depressing show and I couldn't do it. It ended up being really retarded and funny."


imageKyle Jarrow[age 25]
HABITATGorilla Man
P.S.122, 150 First Avenue
212-477-5288

HABITSPop rock scores, irony so thick it's spoon edible, unexpected tenderness

IDENTIFICATIONJarrow's new musical concerns a boy's fur-covered discovery of his heritage. "It's a little bit based on Candide," says Jarrow. His plays mix macabre humor with a surprising concern for the emotional lives of his characters. He also doesn't shy away from the occasional shock tactics: a power saw in Armless, coke-snorting U.S. presidents, a chorus of children intoning the virtues of Scientology. "When people go to see a show of mine there's going to be a visceral reaction," says Jarrow. "They're getting a little bit punched in the gut. But in a good way. A punch that feels good."


imageChristopher Shinn[age 29]
HABITATOn the Mountain
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200

HABITSEmotional peril, prolix characters, social critique

IDENTIFICATIONShinn says his plays often begin with a dialectic (e.g., is depression biological or cultural?) that allows him to approach something personally troubling that he doesn't want to face immediately. "The debate gets channeled through my thinking brain and my heart and my soul," he says, "and ideally it ends up being very well integrated in a play that speaks truthfully to the individual characters' experiences." In On the Mountain, the narrative of a drug casualty rock star and a lost song serves as a blind to the play's real concerns, an extraordinary mother-daughter relationship and a debate over the causes of depression.


imageMarc Spitz[age 35]
HABITATThe Name of This Play Is Talking Heads
Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
212-868-4444

HABITSBroad farce, female sexual predators, best scene-change music ever

IDENTIFICATIONWhen not writing plays (or last year's novel How Soon Is Never?), Spitz contributes features to Spin and his rock journalism infuses all of his stage work. Each piece takes its title from a song or album; aspects of the music industry are frequently satirized. This latest comedy recounts a pop critic's undoing when he participates in VH1's Top 100 Most Rockatrocious Moments in Rock History. Also typical: "There's always a gun and there's always some kind of sexual awkwardness."


photos: Eno: Brian Kennedy; Gionfriddo: Peter Hocking; Jarrow, Lee: Richard Kornberg Publicity; Groff, Shin: TamTamara Rosenblum; Spitz: Publicity Outfitters

 
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