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.
Will Eno [age 39]
HABITAT Thom Pain (based on nothing)
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street
HABITS Formal experimentation, emphasis on revision, quotability
IDENTIFICATION Eno, 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.
Gina Gionfriddo [age 35]
HABITAT After Ashley
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
HABITS Blending realism with satire, hipster repartee
IDENTIFICATION When 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.
Rinne Groff [age 35]
Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street
HABITS Passion for dialect and jargon, female protagonists “trying to stave off despair”
IDENTIFICATION Groff, 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.
Young Jean Lee [age 30]
HABITAT Pullman, WA
P.S.122, 150 First Avenue
HABITS Fascination with awkwardness, minimal settings, transparent acting
IDENTIFICATION Lee, 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.”
Kyle Jarrow [age 25]
HABITAT Gorilla Man
P.S.122, 150 First Avenue
HABITS Pop rock scores, irony so thick it’s spoon edible, unexpected tenderness
IDENTIFICATION Jarrow’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.”
Christopher Shinn [age 29]
HABITAT On the Mountain
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
HABITS Emotional peril, prolix characters, social critique
IDENTIFICATION Shinn 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.
Marc Spitz [age 35]
HABITAT The Name of This Play Is Talking Heads
Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
HABITS Broad farce, female sexual predators, best scene-change music ever
IDENTIFICATION When 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