A new, fearless generation makes this a revolutionary moment in American playwriting

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

This fall season has provided Los Angeles theatergoers the opportunity to become better acquainted with the most exciting generation of playwrights to have burst onto the scene since I became a theater critic more than two decades ago.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Appropriate" was recently at the Mark Taper Forum, Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj" just completed its run at the Geffen Playhouse and Young Jean Lee's "Straight White Men" opens Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

I've made these productions and other plays by these authors a requirement of the graduate seminar I'm teaching this semester at the California Institute of the Arts. The course, American Drama Now, was born out of the recognition that something special has been happening in the American theater over the last five years.

The class syllabus, largely devoted to the work of dramatists younger than 40, also includes Annie Baker, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Thomas Bradshaw and Samuel D. Hunter. And because adventurousness rather than age is the requirement, we're also looking at plays by their somewhat older contemporaries, Anne Washburn and Will Eno, both of whom have been preparing the way for a movement they are undeniably a part of.

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The impressive rule-breaking freedom of these writers, their radical unconventionality, makes this perhaps the most revolutionary moment in American playwriting since Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy began reinventing the dramatic wheel in the 1960s. Instead of waiting around for theater academics to confirm my in-the-trenches assessment of this budding golden age, I'm diving in with my students, trusting that the consensus of critics and theater professionals will be validated by history.

Each week we read one or more works by a writer and attempt to break down the vision of a play through a close examination of its idiosyncratic style. The distinctiveness of these dramatists is made tangible in the way these works are composed — Baker's unique wielding of silence and slowness, McCraney's poetic combination of urban vernacular and African myth, Bradshaw's outrageous provocation played straight.

But we're also paying attention to the producing challenges this writing poses. What unites these very different playwrights, who are more diverse than usual for an American theater dominated by white men, is a rejection of cookie-cutter tradition. Not only aren't they gunning for Broadway, but they also don't seem to be all that concerned with making their plays easy to stage or sell.

Consider the epic scope of some of the works we've been studying. McCraney's "The Brother/Sister Plays" is a trilogy of related plays revolving around a mythological housing project in Louisiana and written in a theatrical language that gives choral lyricism a 21st century multicultural update. Hudes' Pulitzer Prize-winning "Water by the Spoonful" is the middle play in a three-play series, each of which fills in the story of a young Latino veteran injured in Iraq and struggling to reintegrate himself into his family and community.

Everyone knows that the secret to getting produced on our more prominent stages is to keep the cast small, the running time short and the characters as identifiable as possible to subscribers, the vast majority of whom look uncannily like the Republican Party even if they tend to tilt Democratic in the voting booth.

Neither "The Brother/Sister Plays," which hasn't been fully produced in Los Angeles (the Fountain Theatre staged the first two plays to much acclaim) nor "Water by the Spoonful" (which has been presented only in Spanish translation locally) hews to this standard.

Thankfully, "Water by the Spoonful" received an excellent production at San Diego's Old Globe (which also did a superb job with McCraney's "The Brothers Size," the middle play in the trilogy). But I'm waiting to see the other two dramas in Hudes' cycle, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last," and I can't help thinking L.A.'s institutional theaters have begged off not just because of the scale and originality of these works but because the socioeconomic status of the characters makes them tough to market to their audiences.

It's curious that Baker's adaptation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" is being done by the Antaeus Company before theatergoers here have been properly introduced to her original works. South Coast Repertory offered an outstanding production of "Circle Mirror Transformation," the play that transformed Baker from a downtown New York trailblazer to a dramatist of national renown.

But the Taper, the Geffen and the Pasadena Playhouse haven't gotten on board. Several artistic directors of 99-seat theaters have told me that they've had no luck getting the rights to the plays that have established her reputation. She's a major playwright right now — one of the most interesting theater artists working today — so it's understandable that her representation might be holding out for more remunerative opportunities.

A Pulitzer Prize winner shouldn't have to apply for food stamps. But when I saw "The Flick" off-Broadway in 2013, I knew that even if the drama won every award in sight, it wouldn't be on the express track to Los Angeles.

The play, set in an art-house movie theater in New England, polarized audiences at its Playwrights Horizons premiere. Tim Sanford, the theater's courageous artistic director, took the unusual step of writing a letter to his subscribers explaining the rationale for producing a work with a running time topping three hours, a good portion of which was devoted to watching employees mop up soda spills off the floor of this fictional cinema.

Not every theatergoer had the patience to see that there was more to this vérité approach than custodial chatter. At stake were the constricted dreams of three characters in recessionary America and the moral choices being delicately negotiated as the door to the middle class threatens to slam shut on them permanently.

Baker's exposure of this economic assault on already vulnerable psyches isn't what makes "The Flick" a challenge to produce. The work proceeds at a pace that goes counter to hyperactive modern life. Though much occurs in the play, the focus is on the unhurried interaction of the characters, the tedium of their employment (in stark counterpoint to the magic of the movies) and the way momentous shifts are experienced through subtle alterations in everyday banality.

Even with its Pulitzer, "The Flick" could have faded into obscurity the way so many unorthodox off-Broadway plays do. But Baker fortunately found an ally in producer Scott Rudin, whose backing helped give the play a second life in New York at the Barrow Street Theatre, where it's enjoying a commercial run away from the extreme monetary pressures of Broadway.

There's nothing like a Tony Award for getting regional theaters interested in a new play. But I don't think Broadway should be the ultimate goal of today's best playwrights. Neither Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" nor Eno's "The Realistic Joneses" shone especially bright on the Great White Way. The expensiveness of a ticket and the expectations that accompanied seeing Robin Williams (the titular character in "Bengal Tiger") and Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei (in Eno's radically playful drama) burdened the exploration of these novel theatrical visions, even though both plays were scrupulously well acted.

Broadway obviously isn't ready for Annie Baker, and Baker doesn't really need Broadway. But what surprised me was the pushback from my students (a mix of MFA actors and designers, with a director, writer, producer and precocious undergraduate in the mix) who questioned whether the nonprofit bulwarks were the ideal home for this generation of work. To put it mildly, they weren't all that impressed with the Taper production of "Appropriate," which many felt was too faithful to the "August: Osage County" style of domestic drama Jacobs-Jenkins is co-opting while less alert to the subversive uses to which he employs this model to interrogate history, racism and white guilt.

"Appropriate," I conceded, might have worked better at the Kirk Douglas, Center Theatre Group's smallest and most experimental venue. (Several students felt the Taper production tried to appease the audience through laughter, undermining the work's power to disturb, and I could see their point.) In an ideal world another local theater would have simultaneously produced "An Octoroon," Jacobs-Jenkins' postmodern reworking of Dion Boucicault's melodrama "The Octoroon." This double-shot would have clarified the 30-year-old playwright's project of theatrical appropriation.

Those seeing "Appropriate" without any context might have dismissed it as an overextended and somewhat obnoxious family drama with racial themes. But theatergoers have to start somewhere in developing a relationship with a new writer, and I was heartened by the commitment of CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie to produce Jacobs-Jenkins at his flagship theater. I'm also thrilled that the Taper is producing "The Christians" by the rising playwright Lucas Hnath next month and "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)" by the eternally pioneering Suzan-Lori Parks next season.

Rather than give up on the institutional theaters, which are identifying, developing and supporting the art form's new voices (where would the American theater be without Playwrights Horizons?), I'm hoping that this new wave of playwriting will inspire a transformation of the audience-theater relationship by restoring the sense of communal investment that has been overtaken in recent years by consumerist impatience. How thrilling for all of us to be part of a theatrical era of such fresh and fearless talent.

Obstacles unfortunately persist. Mara Isaacs, the producing director of the McCarter Theatre when "The Brother/Sister Plays" premiered in Princeton, said that the diminishment and unreliability of philanthropic sources since the recession has caused nonprofit theaters to become more reliant on box-office revenue.

"What's sad to me is that I don't think the climate today supports the level of risk-taking that was possible just a few years ago," she said. "For example, we received a $90,000 grant through a new play initiative of the NEA to help us produce 'The Brother/Sister Plays,' which was an absolute highlight of my career. But this particular grant no longer exists, and many boards have been placing enormous pressure on their artistic leaders to present work that will appeal to the greatest numbers of people."

The problem with this, Isaacs contends, is that it forces theaters away from their artistic missions and urges them to present work that is already familiar in some way to an audience. "We need to go beyond the transactional relationship. Audiences now want to know the experience they're going to have before even purchasing a ticket."

When I called this playwriting era a "budding golden age," I wasn't making the claim that these dramas are masterpieces ready to take their place beside "Antigone," "Hamlet" and "The Cherry Orchard." Many of these writers are still green, but there's throbbing, unpredictable, insistent life in that greenness.

The work of these authors will either force the establishment to adapt or new producing models will rise up to replace the old. A number of my students, disillusioned by institutions they see as economically and artistically wedded to their own obsolescence, are champing at the bit for revolutionary change.

I, however, am holding out hope that one of these venerable old houses might take a chance on "The Flick" or Washburn's "Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play" or even (God help us) one of Bradshaw's perversely goading comedies. One thing is for certain: These playwrights aren't going away. And if these theaters want to hold the mirror up to nature as it is experienced today, they need to eradicate the contagious tentativeness that has spread to their audiences.

Follow me on Twitter @CharlesMcNulty

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 22, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bold and fearless - A crop of emerging writers is free of rules and radically unconventional, raising the challenges for producers" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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