The last two months in New York have been an exceptional time for seeing new plays written by women playwrights. The most high-profile of these was In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), the latest play by Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer finalist for her The Clean House back in 2005. In The Next Room is a first-rate new work (and her first to appear on Broadway). Hard to pin down as comedy or drama, Ruhl’s period piece about American sexuality in 1880’s (during the dawn of the electric age) is her most assured and complete play to date. The Broadway production, starring the pitch perfect Michael Cerveris and Maria Dizzia, was also a delight—it’s a real shame In The Next Room didn’t extend into the New Year.
Off-Broadway this winter has also seen a good deal of big-name female playwrights. First there was the adaptation of Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by the prolific Rebecca Gilman at New York Theatre Workshop. A perfect example of theater as middle-brow pablum, this uninspired (if well acted) rehashing of a literary classic serves as a reminder of the dangers of trying to translate singular works of art into another medium.
Much more satisfying was the new play with the awkward title, This, which saw an all-too-brief run at Playwrights Horizons. Written by Melissa James Gibson, This is a very New York-centric play about people in their thirties struggling with life, art, children and of course, love. It’s a play in which not much happens—a dinner party, a random hook-up, an evening out—but where much is felt, both by its characters and the audience. This, while certainly in tune with today’s snarky, disarming humor, is not afraid of its characters showing (and about) emotions.
Gibson’s work is full of awkward moments and genuine laughter, but it also has gimmicks, overly clever wordplay (a discussion of the proper pronunciation of “Britta” water filters is likely to haunt NYC dinner parties for years to come) and a prevailing somber tone that might prohibit a Broadway transfer. That would be a shame, since Daniel Aukin’s production and all the performances in the five-person case are top-notch. If This resurfaces on Broadway, off-Broadway or elsewhere, it’s well worth seeing.
The one new play by a female playwright to extend into 2010 is Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. A seemingly simple, five-person play about a weekend acting class in Vermont, CMT is a deceptively complex look at relationships, aspirations, and the way time moves faster than we can comprehend.
The title refers to an old-fashioned acting-school exercise, one where the participants pretend to be things rather than characters. At first CMT appears to be a spoof of acting classes and the touchy-feely, “it’s okay to be you” sensibility they encourage. But as the one-act play progresses and deepens, it becomes clear that the bizarre routine of rituals in Martha Kreisberg’s classes are no more or less crazy (or career enriching) than most activities human beings do. What matters in CMT is the interactions between people, and the way that Baker’s characters try to connect and communicate, both directly and indirectly in the exercises and the moments in-between.
The play’s scenes all take place within the structure of the 6-class schedule and its fascinating to see how much we learn about the progression of these five people simply by what they reveal each week. Baker’s writing is sparse, but its impact is sizeable. This is helped by Sam Gold’s equally sparse production and the rich performances by the five actors—each of whom is deserving of extended praise.
CMT is a solid play (and an easy one to mount) so it will likely see a good number of revivals in the next few years, but it’s this excellent cast that makes watching it feel so special. Gold’s production has been extended a number of times, but last week it was reported it must close at the end of this month (get tickets here). For theater fans, Circle Mirror Transformation is a must see.
Image: Deirdre O’Connell as Marty in the Playwrights Horizons world premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation.