The moment he set foot inside the Greenwich House Theatre, David Sedaris knew what his new play, The Book of Liz, would be about. "The paint in the lobby suggested some kind of Amish or 12-step meeting hall, so we decided to combine the two," he says. The characteristically madcap Sedaris tale tracks the adventures of a runaway nun with a highly embarrassing glandular disorder and a killer recipe for cheese balls.
Collaborating with his sister Amy Sedaris (who plays the sweat-drenched escapee of the aptly named Squeamish sect), David confesses that he often feels like "the dullard" of the Talent Family, the siblings' preferred stage moniker. "During the first read-through, I'm thinking this might just be the worst public humiliation of my life. But then there are moments when Jackie Hoffman will say something and I'm amazed that it's exactly how it was in my imagination. You should hear her do Mr. Peanut with the Korean accent.
"You're not supposed to write about AA meetings," he says, smoking a cigarette inside the theater. "But I figure in a play you can. I decided that everyone at the restaurant where Liz gets a job is an alcoholic. I get a kick out of that AA talk, all the platitudes. It's actually not very different from the way the Squeamish speak in Clusterhaven."
Eager to return to Paris, where he lives with his boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick (who both directed and designed the show), David no longer feels the right feng shui in New York. "It all comes down to apartments. Rents are less than they are here. We actually pay about the same, but we have three fireplaces now." And what about the French? "Half the time I don't understand what they're saying. But they don't seem to get me either. My books are available there, but the publisher doesn't want anyone to know." Charles McNulty
The Year of the Dog
According to the Chinese calendar, 2001 marks the Year of the Snake. Maybe someone should tell this to Off-Broadway practitionersthey're convinced it's the Year of the Dog. The Public Theater has already unleashed Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters and will soon open Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog. (A dog run?) Meanwhile, Primary Stages previews John Henry Redwood's No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs and the Atlantic Theater has collared David Rabe's latest, The Dog Problem. Why the sudden puppy love?
Unlike other animals, such as ibexes, dogs readily lend themselves to metaphor. "Dogs are a literal, spiritual, and metaphorical presence in the world and in my play," explains Hagedorn. "So much so that some of us have to eat them." Hagedorn, incidentally, grew up with packs of dogs, but considers it cruel to maintain a dog in the city. "I have great compassion for any noble beast yanked around by its leash on the streets of Manhattan. What a tragic destiny. Dogs are dogs, not accessories."
We assume that No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs and Topdog/Underdog employ dogs in a figurative capacity, rather than a literal, culinary, or accessorized one. Redwood's play concerns racism in a Southern town, while Parks's chronicles two brothers dogged with the names Lincoln and Booth. (Parks and Redwood had no canine comments.) Rabe's play, however, which recounts a "questionable romantic incident" involving a boy, a girl, and his dog, does place the titular pooch onstage. The desired mutt must "eat its food well onstage," says Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. "And hopefully it doesn't look at the audience." Pepe may not need to search too farthe Duse of dogs may lurk in his playwright's own backyard. Rabe, also the author of the novel Recital of the Dog, owns "four very nice" ones. Alexis Soloski
The Downtown Realty Reality
Forget location, location, location. For downtown theaters located in skyrocketing rent districts, life and death may be "all in the timing"how many years left on their leases.
"We could be dead in the water in two years," declares Here's Kristin Marting, who's eight years into a 10-year lease (current monthly rent: $9183). If Here can't work out a reasonable new lease, they plan on fundraising for another space, but will lose their half-million dollars in capital improvements to their Soho theater. Robert Prichard's lease at Surf Reality is also up in two years, but he's less worried since he mostly rents the Allen Street space to other producers and passes along his rent increases (current monthly rent: $3500). Six months ago, Ludlow Street's Collective Unconscious signed a new, five-year leasewith a 43 percent rent hike to $3700 per month. They also rent out their theater as much as possible, says member Kelly Schornak. "But we pride ourselves on making things affordable. We've had to get grant money, or our members kicked in our own pocket money."
Even if their leases have years to run and options to renew, most theaters are still hard-pressed. The Present Company is forming a capital-campaign committee to raise the bucks to buy a space, because rent on their converted Stanton Street garage is so high ($10,000 monthly). "The climate is increasingly fearful," says producing director Elena Holy. Some of the theaters are looking into initiatives by ART New York, like tax breaks to landlords who rent to nonprofits, or leasing space collectively and sharing resources. Few venue operators, though, are as lucky as Erez Ziv, managing director of Horse Trade Theater, who's just embarked on 10-year leases at the Kraine, the Red Room, and St. Mark's Theaterall good rents, he explains, totaling $20,000. "We found landlords who love theater," says Ziv about his East Village empire, "and want this rather than to make money." Francine Russo
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