“There is a place between the actual city ‘Philly’ and the suburban ‘Philadelphia,’ ” reads a stage direction from one of Tom Donaghy’s early plays, Down the Shore. “That’s where this is.” Search through modern dramatic literature and you probably won’t find a stage direction more emblematic of an author and his work. First, it requires us to imagine a vague territory with fatally ordinary surroundings. Then we’re struck by the suggestion that a ring of lawn around a major city might have been overlooked when the naming committee came through, or deliberately neglected by its population. Then we’re tersely reassured that the place actually exists, and its unsettling blankness is completely normal.
All the effects of a Tom Donaghy play are right there. Disorientation. Depiction of the suburbs as a moral wasteland. Important themes hinted at rather than stated. In the faint repetition of “there is a place” and “that’s where this is,” you find the most salient quality of Donaghy’s work: his incredible ear for natural speech.
“Tom has the uncanny ability to speak the truth in a very specific language,” says Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater. “He’s capturing the intense isolation and desperation of trying to find connection with the minimal equipment language gives you.” Donaghy’s characters talk over one another in sentence fragments, spew quirky idioms, juggle subjects, repeat themselves, and usually follow their own trains of thought. Plotwise, a Donaghy play sprawls unpredictably yet moves glacially forward, a fact that earns him comparisons with Chekhov. (This may seem an exaggeration to those who can’t imagine Chekhov shopping at Kmart.) Donaghy’s newest play, The Beginning of August, about a neurotic, narcoleptic dad whose wife leaves him stranded with their newborn child, is now in previews at the Atlantic. An anthology of his plays, also titled The Beginning of August, will be released by Grove Press at the beginning of October.
The “Philly” stage direction is autobiographical. Donaghy, the second-generation son of an Irish bricklayer and an Italian mother who “cleaned a hell of a lot,” grew up in Drexel Hill, a Philadelphia suburb. “A pretentious name for a kind of Levittown subdivision,” he says. Donaghy drew a great deal, thinking he’d become a visual artist, though he wasn’t yet familiar with that term. In grade school, he and a “freaky, red-haired” friend who now runs a theater in Philly (Terrence Nolen of the Arden Theatre Company) would put on elaborate adaptations of Snow White or Winnie-the-Pooh for their classmates.
Meanwhile, Donaghy’s father volunteered as the school basketball coach. “Basketball was everywhere in the Donaghy family, but I was sort of inept, so I never wanted to be on his team, which was a source of shame for him,” Donaghy recalls. “Then fifth grade came around and I said, ‘Dad, I want to be on the team this year.’ He was so proud. I was the eldest, I had his name. He said, ‘Of course you can, but why are you asking this year?’ Supposedly I said, ‘This year I like the uniform.’ I don’t remember saying that part, but I remember the uniform. Blue satin with a gold brocade, very sexy and very regal. My father would tell this story all the time without really understanding what it implied.”
Donaghy’s characters often display a cluelessness not unlike Tom Sr.’s, giving away the truth to anyone who can sift it out of the larger context. Here’s the speech that lets you know that Junior in The Dadshuttle (1993) is HIV-positive but can’t tell his father:
Junior: ” . . . I feel fine. I mean, I feel that I think I’m fine. I look fine.”
“I cannot think of myself as someone who gets up in front of people and says I know something different or better or unique,” explains Donaghy. “This is the reason I can’t teach.” It’s the familiar cry of the autodidact. The 37-year-old Donaghy has no formal schooling as a playwright, though he did study acting at NYU. “I was pretty bad,” he says, with the arch demeanor of your Mom’s friend letting her guard down at a barbecue. “I wanted to be in theater, but I had no idea what I wanted to do in it. Dancing bored me, I’d done that. I never said so, but I thought I’d be a set designer.”
As it turns out, Donaghy got perhaps the best lack of formal schooling one could get: He was one of a handful of NYU students who went on Vermont retreats with David Mamet in the early ’80s, studying Plato, the Stoics, and Stanislavsky, taking voice and dance classes. Inspired, the group became the Atlantic Theater Company. But they were poor and couldn’t afford royalties for real plays—so they started writing their own. “I sort of rose to the top just because I did. People said, ‘Oh, you’re good at this.’ And then I dicked around for four more years without being serious about it.”
Donaghy’s contact with Mamet might lead one to believe that his naturalistic line-volleying style derived from the elder playwright’s hard-boiled banter, but Donaghy says that seeing experimental theater, working for Mabou Mines, and doing improv were what brought him to his theatre vérité. “I have a mission for more realness,” he declares. “Sometimes I go to the theater and I feel so manipulated I cannot stand it. I think, ‘How do I invest in this experience if I feel I’m just watching actors on a stage having to say lines?’ There’s a cultural movement for more intimate storytelling. People have a cynical response to it, but theater could learn a lot from reality-based television.”