9/1/2022 From the Bookshelf: Dramatist Play Service’s Broadway Book Club
NO SUCH THING AS TOO MANY SCRIPTS
So, who remembers the Fireside Theatre Book Club? I was a member from the early 1970’s through its transition to “Stage and Screen” Book Club to its (alleged) demise in the 1990’s. I say “alleged” because, although the club notified me that they were ceasing operations and no longer sending out “Books of the Month,” I learned while researching this that they were taken over by another concern (Bookspan?) who apparently didn’t like existing customers and only truly ceased operations in 2020.
Which is to say, because I was an avid theatre fanatic, I bought nearly ALL their published scripts, and have a wall full of hard-cover plays and anthologies to show for my investment.
So even though it apparently still existed, I missed it mightily, satisfying my script jones by frequent visits to NYC’s Drama Book Club and even more frequent forays to the Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service sites.
So, imagine my delight when DPS announced a new subscription “Club,” curated by produced playwrights, sending out once a quarter six (or so) scripts for my reading pleasure? Despite its high (ish) price tag (app $70 for 7 scripts or slightly below DPS’s regular price), I didn’t hesitate to whip out my Visa and get started. It didn’t hurt that the first offering was curated by Atlanta’s favorite playwright (and mine) Lauren Gunderson. To sweeten the deal, the package included her Book of Will (truth to tell, I already owned that script – if anyone wants my spare, DM your snail mail address -- I’ll even pay for postage – First Come First Serve).
So, forthwith are my thoughts on the first seven scripts (yes, it didn’t take me long to read them all):
JUICY AND DELICIOUS
By Lucy Alibar
Originally Produced at “The Tank” in New York City February 14, 2007
This is a surreal child’s-eye view of an apocalypse. Or maybe just the fever dreams of a 10-year-old who has just lost his mother and whose father is falling apart, even as wild Aurochs chomp and snort at the ripening child-flesh becoming available. This one-act was the basis for the 2012 movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which I found intriguing but not particularly engaging. (In the movie, the main character, Hushpuppy, was changed from a boy to a girl – something suggested by the playwright herself.) This script is a fun read, with lyrical and stark dialogue and vividly memorable images and characters. But it raises interesting staging questions – just how do the designers make it “rain grits” and just what do prehistoric Aurochs look like?
Ms. Gunderson writes, “Lucy [Alibar] is a genius poet-minded yard-spinner and also a dear friend from Georgia like myself. … [She] exhibits the stuff of Flannery O’Connor but all her own, unafraid of gritty coarseness, brave feminism, and the brutal beauty of life.”
BY THE WAY MEET VERA STARK
By Lynn Nottage
Originally Produced at Second Stage Theatre in New York City May 9, 2011
Produced in Atlanta by the Alliance Theatre October 2013 (See Our Review Here)
This was a play I remember vividly from its Alliance production, though, at the time, I was a bit strict with its second act penchant for caricature. Just to recap, Act One follows the efforts of Vera Stark, “Colored Maid” of Movie Sweetheart Gloria Mitchell, as they both jockey for roles in an upcoming Hollywood Antebellum blockbuster, The Belle of New Orleans. It is a wise and funny portrait of race at the height of the pre-code Hollywood era. In Act Two, we jump to 2003 and a film society colloquy on the career of Vera Stark. Was she a groundbreaker, or just another Stepin’ Fetchit enforcing Hollywood’s “vision” of race relations? We also see clips of a 1973 talk show interview with Vera and Gloria close to the end of their lives, so we get a very untrustworthy narrative of their careers post “Belle.”
Originally, I took to task the script’s portraits of the Act Two “intellectuals,” seemingly making them caricatures that supposedly represented all of academia, caricatures that were in stark contrast to the anti-caricature sentiments and struggles we see in Act One. But, reading the script, those caricatures seem not galling but telling – “you forced us into these stereotypical roles, now how do YOU like it?”
Sometimes reading a script will make me rethink my initial reactions to a show I see. The good news is Alpharetta’s ACT1 Theater has this on their new season schedule next February, so there will be another opportunity to see it in performance.
Ms. Gunderson writes, “This play is brazen, hilarious and so sharply written as to leave you perfectly cut through by her insights on race, stereotypes, and the entertainment industry.”
DESDEMONA, A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF
By Paula Vogel
Originally Produced at Circle Repertory in New York City November 1993
Produced in Atlanta by the Weird Sisters Theatre Project at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse in 2011
(Sorry to have missed this production)
This is a crackerjack comedy that takes us “backstage” on Cyprus as that stupid handkerchief sends Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca to their Shakespearean fate. Vogel has them fight, dish, kvetch, and show us what is at stake for characters of a particular gender, class, or profession. Bianca is actually the madam of a bawdy house who is hoping her relationship with Cassio will give her respectability. Desdemona is a spoiled and privileged aristocrat, not particularly virtuous (Cassio may be the ONLY soldier she hasn’t slept with), but still aware of her place and her probable fate. Emilia is Desdemona’s lower class maid, strung along with promises of a better position, but constantly belittled and “Mealy’d” by the lady – is it any wonder she thinks her prank with the hanky will give Desdemona her just comeuppance? I like how Shakespeare’s play hangs over this like a shadow – we know how it has to end -- and I like how all the ironies implicit in that knowledge deepens and broadens what would otherwise be just another “Downstairs” Shakespeare pastiche. The three characters have dialogue written in dialect – Desdemona overly proper British, Emilia Irish, Bianca Cockney, all of which read lyrically and musically and make the characters jump off the page.
This is a play that needs a production! And I hope soon.
Ms. Gunderson writes, “I think [Vogel] taught me not just how to write a play but how to blow it up and remake the model every time you do it. This play knocked me over when I saw it and seemed to be activism as well as art.”
By Anna Zeigler
Originally Produced at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City November 1, 2010
This one COULD have been written by Lauren Gunderson as it is in her “Overlooked Women of Science” oeuvre. In this case, the subject is Rosalind Franklin, the woman who may or may not have found the structure of DNA before the celebrated Crick and Watson. Anna Zeigler has fashioned a highly readable script that plays fair with the characters and their ever-evolving relationships. Told by a series of narrators – all men who may or may not be “reliable witnesses” – it paints a vivid portrait of Dr. Franklin and her work that is often funny, often angry, and, eventually, moving.
Ms. Gunderson writes, “Zeigler is such a genius at the intimate writing that allows us to truly know and follow her characters. … I could watch this play once a year and never lose interest.”
THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE
By Julia Cho
Originally Produced at Roundabout Theatre in New York City October 17, 2010
George is a linguist, a fanatical student of languages obsessed with keeping dead and dying languages alive and spoken. So why can’t he find the words to say to his wife to make her stay with him? Why can’t he understand the silent subtext with which his devoted lab assistant soaks her every word to him? And how can he make the squabbling couple he is studying, the last speakers of the language of the Ell-o-wa River People, stop arguing in English and communicate in their own tongue? A whimsical, very often funny play about language and marriage (and bread), one that is ultimately quite moving and quite eloquent in so many indescribable ways. Words, after all, can carry only so much weight before they become meaningless. I really loved reading this play and hope it eventually gets an Atlanta production,
Ms. Gunderson writes, “I will watch anything Julia Cho writes and this play started my adoration of her storytelling and wit.”
(Note: Ms. Cho is also an actress who has appeared in many shows, including “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” as Charlotte.)
By Dael Orlandersmith
Originally Produced at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, January 10, 2002
This is a 20-year-old play that could have been written yesterday. Alma and Eugene are from small-town South Carolina. Alma is a “large-boned” very dark woman who longs for a life outside the south where she is not judged for her size, her color, or her gender. Eugene is a light-skinned (“High Yellow”) man from a wealthier family, one still at the mercy of whites and darker peers who judge him and abuse him. Of course these two will fall in love in a tragic story of the intertwining ripple effects of race and class and domestic abuse in America. Essentially two monologues woven together in a tapestry-like plot, this is an exciting and ultimately disturbing read, as well as a powerhouse acting challenge for two.
Ms. Gunderson writes, “Orlandersmith is one of the most unforgettable storytellers and language-wielders in the American Theatre, and this beautifully structured play [will break] your heart.”
THE BOOK OF WILL
By Lauren Gunderson
Originally Commissioned and produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver CO, on January 13, 2017
Produced in Atlanta by Theatrical Outfit in August 2018 (See Our Review Here)
One of my favorite Gunderson scripts, this tells the story of how the first folio of Shakespeare’s Plays came to life. A rousing portrait of life and theatre in Elizabethan England, this is a must-read, must-see play for every discerning theatre-obsessed Atlantan. It includes one of the most moving and compelling defenses of theatre ever written or performed, all the more remarkable as it appears in a scene of intense and profound grief.
Thank you for staying with me through this, and I will be back in a couple of months with thumbnails of next quarter’s already-anticipated group of plays.
In the meantime, here is a link to set up your own subscription:
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #DramatistsPlayService #LaurenGunderson)