At the end of the 1950s, when Off-Broadway was young and Off-Off-Broadway just starting up, a play was still, for the most part, one strictly defined sort of thing. A curtain went up at the beginning, revealing a representation of a real place, where the characters did and said ostensibly real things until the curtain came down again. There were other categories of theater, like “Shakespeare” and “musicals,” which were understood to have more flexible rules, but by and large a play was a play. If reviewers applied the adjective “experimental” to it, that meant it was probably imported from Europe and wouldn’t have a long run.
We — my generation — changed all that. Off-Off-Broadway exploded the idea of a play into a thousand shapes and styles. As those innovations caught on, Off-Broadway quickly began assimilating them — and the new artists who’d created them. Broadway, watching its worn-out conventions lose their profitable luster, started taking an interest. Theatrical life ran excitingly — for a while.
Then, inevitably, the excitement began to wear off; what had seemed new and thrilling became familiar. The old habits began to creep back. Broadway started putting its money into updated versions of the old-style boxes (often imported from England) — sleeker and dressier now, but with the same stale content. Off-Broadway, which had become a land of nonprofit institutions yearning for fiscal stability, started to get tamer, with one eye always on a possible Broadway transfer. Omens of theatrical boredom loomed.
But then came the kids. I can call them kids because they’re two generations down from my crowd. While New York’s theater was moving toward moneymaking tameness, the kids were at school, studying the generation of plays that exploded the tame form. They perused the whole range of European predecessors, too: Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett, surrealists and expressionists, all while seizing on the pop touchstones of their own generation — Lovecraft, hip-hop, superhero comics — just as my peers had glommed on to Busby Berkeley and the Beatles. Plus they were navigating the Web (we oldsters were still learning how to log on), and its resources have taught them to see through all the fakery of today’s world, a world that’s going so quickly down the tubes. Now these kids are writing plays, and they aren’t afraid of anything.
That’s why discussing plays with this year’s Obie committee was so exhilarating for me. We wound up giving three playwriting awards, including Best Play, plus one for musical-theater writing; we also gave two special awards for collaboration, one to a playwright-director team, and one — for a work in which the intangible atmosphere was the key element — to the playwright, director, and design team all together. But that was only the frosting; if we had cut deeper into the cake, we might have given half a dozen more awards for playwriting. I’ve had a long involvement with the Obies, and it’s a good many years since we’ve had such a profusion of exciting plays to discuss.
They come in all shapes and sizes. Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj is a one-act that would be an extended vaudeville sketch if it weren’t steeped simultaneously in an ancient, faraway culture and a splatter-movie’s worth of blood and mayhem. Stephen Karam’s The Humans would be a naturalistic play in a traditional genre — the holiday gathering that brings family tensions to a boil — if it weren’t also a disquieting dream play thick with Beckettian darkness. Annie Baker’s John ranks as the eeriest work of the lot, all unexplained silences and half-explained occurrences, its tales of dead and undead loves set, unsettlingly, in a b&b with a history-haunted address: Gettysburg.
Today’s playwrights are excitingly prolific as well as venturesome. Lucas Hnath captured an Obie with two plays so startlingly different from each other — or from anybody else’s — that their sharp contrast was itself an achievement. A high school swimming champ’s dangerous flirtation with performance-enhancing drugs doesn’t have anything to do with a prosperous fundamentalist church’s lurch toward schism over the definition of evil — or does it? Hnath also had no hesitation about demanding a viable onstage swimming pool for Red Speedo and a functioning gospel choir for The Christians. The days when playwrights beat their brains to a pulp keeping such demands down seem to be over, for now.
Hard on the heels of The Christians (and of her own win last year with You Got Older) came Clare Barron’s extravagant, seemingly disjointed I’ll Never Love Again, which mustered an entire high school glee club onstage for a personal confession that was also a reverie about human interactions from bedroom to workplace. (Her director, Michael Leibenluft, copped an Obie for keeping the extravaganza centered and cohesive.)
Yes, our old three-dimensional art form has stepped into an internet world where everything is accessible in one quick click. Today’s playwrights can shift focus, tone, or even subject matter in an eye-blink. Amazingly, they can do it without losing hold of their core meaning. Another entrant in the double-play challenge, Danai Gurira, gave her actors powerful opportunities in wildly antithetical forms with Eclipsed and Familiar; performers in both seized their chance and carried off Obies.
Gurira’s characters embody our multiplicitous, dizzying time: Zimbabweans caught in a Minnesota blizzard in Familiar; sex slaves to a Liberian warlord, in Eclipsed, puzzling over Bill Clinton’s marital peccadilloes. That fraught sense of ironic juxtaposition permeates this season’s torrent of new writing, with its liberated theatrical vocabulary and its eagerness to tackle every imaginable topic. Gauge their range as I list more of the year’s plays of exceptional quality: Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria.
Adding them to the winners makes a list as diverse in form and theme as its authors are in gender and ethnicity, a theater lover’s joy in every respect. Contemplating it has stoked my sometimes wavering faith in our theatrical future. What may come next in our political life may understandably make us quail, but our young playwrights are ready for it. Hard to delude, they know when their millennial coevals are being a-holes, and they never hesitate to tell their elders what a thoroughly fucked-up world they’ve been handed. They know, too, that a mystery thrives in every human heart. The barrage of TMI that we all download daily from the Web has not distracted them from realizing that there are eternal questions to which all plays must respond. Their daring makes me want to go to the theater again.
[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]