When we go to the theatre, we’re used to seeing plays in their final, perfected form, so it’s somewhat easy to forget all the hard work and revisions a play goes through while it’s making its way towards that hallowed state.
Fortunately, we sometimes get a rare glimpse of what happens behind the scenes thanks to programs like the Theatre Lab’s 5th annual Playwright’s Forum, which provides nationally recognized playwrights with the opportunity to develop their works-in-progress via staged readings starring experienced actors. Tickets to these readings are available for purchase to the general public, who then get the chance to offer their feedback on the work in a post-show talkback.
Each featured playwright also offers a 90-minute masterclass on the craft of playwriting. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first two of this year’s reading-and-seminar pairs, the first of which highlighted the work of award-winning playwright Jaqueline Goldfinger.
Goldfinger spoke about how she strategically works to illuminate a grand-scale theme or issue by first creating developed and compelling characters. Each of these characters must be motivated by a desire, however small, and a fleshed-out and cohesive set of interior and exterior traits. However, finding our way towards such well-constructed figures ought to be an enjoyable journey rather than an arduous one.
“I don’t want to say you’re doing something ‘wrong,’ but if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something fucking wrong,” Goldfinger suggested about first drafts, which she also believes could include “everything but the kitchen sink” and be whittled down to something more refined later during the writing process.
Her play, Babel, which is set for a rolling world premiere in 2020, delved into the “big topic” of eugenics by zoning in on the experience of two couples who struggle with weighty ethical dilemmas in a near-future world where genetic testing can tell prospective parents a staggering amount of information about their impending offspring before they are even born. This has led to the creation of a class system reminiscent of the one found in Brave New World, in which only those who are genetically pure can get “PRE certified” and access to basic societal privileges and opportunities.
Niki Fridh and Betsy Graver star as Dani and Renee, a lesbian couple who have had trouble conceiving (with the help of a newly invented egg-melding process along with some donor sperm) but are finally expecting their first child. The play kicks into gear is Renee discovers that the child she is carrying has a genetic makeup that predisposes him or her to sociopathy.
As Renee and Dani grapple with how to proceed, we also get to know their best friends, a seemingly perfect heterosexual couple consisting of Jeanine Gangloff Levy as Ann and Alex Alvarez as Jamie, a wonderfully conflicted character with some genetic secrets of his own.
The futuristic intellectual thriller that then ensues was both hilarious and harrowing. The play’s title refers to the Biblical tower of Babel and the human propensity to screw things up once we have acquired the kind of power formerly reserved for Gods, and the script adeptly delved into the psychological and philosophical complexity of an absurd world that, as per the play’s talkback, actually might be closer to conceivable possibility than we’d like to think.
The plot was replete with twists that were surprising but not incongruous, such as when what at first seems to be a surrealist touch is revealed to be futuristic technology and a shocking scene that suggests just where Renee and Dani’s baby may have gotten her psychotic genes. Aside from perhaps a fresh-off-the-press ending that felt a tad too conclusive, it’s hard to imagine that this superb script actually needs much rewriting.
A week later commenced masterclass 2, which was led by accomplished Miami playwright Christopher Demos Brown, whose American Son recently appeared on Broadway. Brown’s lesson focused on dialogue, which, we would learn, is an entirely different animal than conventional “speech.” Though dialogue must sound naturalistic, it should also contain “heightened language, cadence, and poetry,” and ensure that the play as a whole move with the correct pacing and rhythm. His play, Coral Gables, is both a prequel and sequel to his “Captiva,” which appeared at Zoetic Stage in 2011 and the prequel to a TBA new play that will join the pair to form a trilogy.
Few better examples of “heightened language” could be imagined than the gorgeous metaphysical monologues given throughout Act One of Coral Gables by the character Emily Cestar. Though she outwardly appears to be suffering from dementia, her inner world as revealed in these soliloquies is shown to be more illuminated than ever. The abstract, cosmic quality of these asides reminded me a bit of Harper’s eerie rambles in Angels in America, and actress Lourelene Snedecker dazzled both during her character’s delirious moments and her lucid ones.
Meanwhile, the dialogue of Emily’s middle-aged children, who gradually make their way towards their childhood home when they discover how much their mother’s condition has deteriorated, was sharp, fast-paced, and frequently hilarious. The act actually had a fairly light and humorous tone despite the pathos of Emily’s descent into delirium, at least in comparison to a much more dramatic second act, which, fascinatingly, took place 30 years earlier.
Whereas Act One had taken place in the present day, Act Two took us back to the 70s, when Emily was pregnant with the youngest child Val and Val’s two older brothers were toddlers. This act had a higher emotional pitch as a family secret that had been cleverly hinted at during Act One was gradually and painfully revealed. Perhaps because this half of the show seemed more plot-driven, I enjoyed it a tad less than Act One, where there had been more room for the play’s complex characters to bicker and connect and Brown’s ingenuity to shine.
I’m incredibly excited to see where Coral Gables’ revisions take it, as well as relieved that I will presumably get to spend even more time with these rich, interesting characters and learn more about their tormented history in “Captiva” and an eventual play 3. It’s only because I have theatre business elsewhere that I won’t be attending the last reading of this year’s series, which will take place this Sunday and feature the Theatre Lab’s first commissioned play, titled After All I Did For You and written by Patricia Cotter. Especially considering that Babel director Matt Stabile is returning to take charge and that Jeni Hacker, whose performance I found so amusing in Grindr Mom, is among the cast, I’m sure it won’t be one that any curious theatre-goer would want to miss!