New American Playwrights Live by the Way of the Word

Adam Bock, Young Jean Lee and more make up a new breed of self-aware playwrights questioning what we know about language

In The Typographer's Dream, a play by Adam Bock that premiered at the Ohio Theatre in 2002, a stenographer, a geographer, and a typographer stand before the audience, discussing their professions. The typographer loves her job, she says, because it allows her to tether language to the page, to give it a kind of permanence. "When we talk," she says, "the words float out, language is ephemeral and intangible, it's hard to capture. . . . "

To listen to some people, these are dark days for playwriting—that other art of fixing language to paper. A few years ago, for example, a former editor asked me to consider writing an essay on the dearth of "great American playwrights."

I declined. While "great" is not an adjective I toss around lightly, it actually seems to me a very good time for playwrights. During this summer's brief caesura—with one theatrical season finished and another not yet begun—my thoughts turn to the playwrights whose work I most enjoy: Adam Bock, Rinne Groff, Young Jean Lee, Rob Handel, Jordan Harrison, and Anne Washburn, among others. These playwrights share more than haunts (New Dramatists, 13P, Clubbed Thumb) and influences (the MFA classrooms of Mac Wellman and Paula Vogel). Though their plays take on different modes and tonalities—you'd never confuse Handel with Washburn, or Lee with anyone—they share a concern with language itself, varieties of form, and the strange alchemy of performance: the marvel of actor and audience inhabiting the same place together.

Unsettling identity shifts: Jordan  Harrison's Amazons and Their Men
Carl Skutsch
Unsettling identity shifts: Jordan Harrison's Amazons and Their Men

Unlike past greats such as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, these writers don't emphasize plot or character. Rather, they hew toward another tradition of American drama. This school—which begins with Gertrude Stein, and includes Maria Irene Fornés, Richard Foreman, and more recently David Greenspan and Suzan-Lori Parks—doesn't place primacy on plot or character; instead, it questions the very devices and means by which we create theater.

Not all of the writing emerging from this new group dazzles. Some plays substitute cleverness for content; some seem too flimsy to bear translation to the stage. Some writers, like Sarah Ruhl and Noah Haidle, succumb to a cloying whimsy. (Ann Marie Healy, a 13P member, teeters on the edge of such surrender.) Ruhl and Haidle are linguistically gifted, but they yield all too easily to preciousness: Last season, they both offered plays featuring characters who dealt, literally, in human hearts.

On the other hand, some of this group's plays are so concerned with formal gamesmanship or linguistic panache that they ignore the human heart altogether. Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear, which concerned the parents of a drowned boy, nearly lost its emotional vigor to its verbal playfulness. And Washburn's The Internationalist, though rather wonderful when seen at 45 Bleecker, shunted the protagonist aside to revel in an invented, untranslated foreign language.

But at their best, these writers craft plays that stay with you long after you've left the black box. Often, as in the works of Lee, they challenge or confront the audience. Lee loves to toy with formal conventions. Her best play, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, offered a deeply troubling tribute to Oriental spectacle. The recent Church, an uneven but stimulating piece, used the form of an evangelist's sermon to critique spectators for their smugness and self-congratulation. Groff's plays aren't so spiky, though they do—like Lee's—exploit various sorts of performance, often the popular sorts that we might imagine beneath the legitimate theater's notice: magic shows, protest songs, Christmas pageants, etc. Saved, the Playwrights Horizons musical about evangelical teens that Groff co-wrote last season, may have been a more conventional endeavor. But in her best works—Inky, Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat—she includes erratic narrators who offer a lopsided perspective on the events she describes. (Groff—along with Brooke Berman, Liz Meriwether, and Rachel Hoeffel—is also writing some of the best plays about the experiences of young women.)

Like Groff, Jordan Harrison also features untrustworthy characters. In Finn in the Underworld, Act a Lady, and Amazons and Their Men, Harrison writes about men and women who have little self-knowledge. Unsure of themselves, they play revealing games of dress-up, trying on different identities and personae. These shifting identities are deliciously unsettling, a mode Rob Handel also uses. But if Harrison's characters use performance to make sense of themselves, Handel's do it in order to understand past events—like the brother and sister in Aphrodisiac who play out the sex scandal in which their father has embroiled himself.

All of these writers display an interest in the workings of language, its potential for communication and obfuscation, but Bock and Washburn's plays seem to be about language. Last season, Bock gave us The Drunken City at Playwrights Horizons, a minor effort, but also The Receptionist at MTC, a chilling play about a woman who makes her living idly chatting while the office that employs her works at extracting verbal confessions via torture. In Bock's best play, The Thugs, proofreaders indulge in salacious gossip and workplace jargon while ignoring a colleague abused by her boyfriend.

If Bock's plays center on what we can't or won't hear, Washburn's focus on the difficulties of translation. The Internationalist concerns an American unable to interpret the words and intentions of his foreign colleagues. A lighter piece, her ghost-play Apparition, features Macbeth rendered in colloquial English and passages of extravagant fake Latin: "I made it up," a character explains. "It helps me concentrate."

Worryingly, we won't have the chance to concentrate on these writers this coming season: Most will not have local productions. Barring some last-minute additions to the schedule, only Lee has a guaranteed New York slot—The Shipment, at the Kitchen, which she describes as "an extremely awkward celebration of blackness." With any luck, our New York theaters will take a bigger interest in these writers in the future and give us fresh cause for celebration, awkward or not.

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