Remember “Stardust Memories,” the 1980 Woody Allen film in which a director is repeatedly implored -- by his fans, and even a space alien -- to quit being so serious and go back to making movies like his “earlier, funnier ones”? Anglo-Australian playwright Joe Penhall has the problem in reverse.
When “Dumb Show,” his lampoon of the British tabloid press and the celebrities it feeds upon, premiered in London last year, some critics -- even those who liked the show -- hinted that he should get back to plays more like his earlier, serious ones.
“It lacks the moral dilemmas that make for gripping drama,” sniffed Michael Billington in the Guardian. “I miss the anguish and psychological darkness,” confessed Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times, even as he declared “Dumb Show” a lark that underscored “how fortunate ... we are to have a playwright under 40 with such finesse, rhythm and diversity.”
Penhall is 38, and his skills have been on display since he arrived as one of a mid-1990s squadron of confrontational playwrights championed by the Royal Court Theatre -- among them Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Martin McDonagh. In “Some Voices,” his 1994 debut, and “Blue/Orange,” which won the Olivier Award for best play in 2001, he dramatized the abandonment of the mentally ill. “The Bullet” (1998) showed the corrosive influence of business downsizing on a middle-aged man and his family, earning comparisons to “Death of a Salesman.”
Southern California is having an unplanned Penhall festival this weekend: Tonight, as South Coast Repertory offers the U.S. premiere of “Dumb Show,” the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana closes its run of “Some Voices.” And Saturday at 10 p.m., LA Theatre Works offers a radio production of “Blue/Orange” on KPCC-FM (89.3).
Penhall’s nature does not seem to be anchored in moody-brooding as he chatted recently in a sunlit conference room at South Coast Repertory. There were a Clash T-shirt and faded jeans on his tall, solid frame, and profanely barbed, freely flung opinions on his tongue. He doesn’t care if critics begrudge him a vacation from serving as the public’s social conscience.
“I got tired of the responsibility. I just wanted to have fun and have a laugh,” Penhall said. “I feel like I deserved it. In the first five plays, there’s one attempt to self-immolate, two plays with paranoid schizophrenia in them, one with somebody beaten to death, another filled with domestic violence -- horribly dark stuff. I just wanted a break.”
Some critics thought that, given that he’d spent a couple of years as a reporter for a South London community newspaper before his playwriting career took off, Penhall should have had something more trenchant to say in “Dumb Show” about what drives the news media’s derelictions and excesses.
“There’s no point in trying to get to grips with the issues of freedom of the press and why the tabloid press in England is so malign and mendacious. It’s obvious why: It’s schadenfreude and it’s cheap and it’s titillating and it’s easy.” Penhall did a bit of legwork for “Dumb Show,” interviewing a tabloid writer notorious for using trickery to get the dirt on the rich and famous. “I always assumed these kinds of hacks are bitter and twisted and cynical, and they do it because it increases circulation. The revelation for me was that this guy seemed really to believe in the kind of moral high ground they inhabit in print, the holier-than-thou pose. His wider agenda was to clean up society. But I think more than anything else he just liked the buzz.”
Penhall, born in England and raised in Australia, sought his first buzz in rock ‘n’ roll, gravitating to a Sydney art school because “I thought everyone would be forming bands. But they were all eating tofu.” After a year, he headed to London and scuffled in jobs running a pizza joint and busing tables before landing a slot on the South London Guardian. Meanwhile, he took playwriting courses at the Royal Court, where Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter were among the instructors. “Some Voices” began as course work, its substance drawn from his reporting on the national health system.
“So many playwrights just write about themselves,” Penhall said. “I was interested in doing something that had to do with someone out there in the world.”
As he went on, he wrote about subjects closer to home: “The Bullet” was a grueling and depressing experience, he said, because it essentially told the story of his own family, inspired by the job travails of his father, a jazz musician who became a dentist and then a medical school professor specializing in facial reconstruction. “Blue/Orange” owed one of its main plot elements -- a trumped-up inquisition into a psychiatrist’s alleged racism -- to comparable smears Penhall thinks drained his father and hastened his death in 1998.
Along with accolades, Penhall has had his share of bruises both as a playwright and a screenwriter -- he said that “The Bullet,” at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse, suffered from bad luck and artistic director Sam Mendes’ absences while Mendes was working on the Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” And he profanely disowned “The Last King of Scotland,” an upcoming British film about Uganda’s mad, bloodthirsty former ruler, Idi Amin, that he said was rewritten by others into “crap.”
All of that contributed to his need to take time out for fun. Still, Penhall said, he’s uncomfortable being pegged as a comic playwright. He admires writers, such as Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, who weave humor into plays with serious intent. Even “Dumb Show” has some of that, he’d like to think.
“It’s been billed as a comedy. I think marketing people think it’s an easy way to sell tickets, but it makes me uneasy. It’s a play about vanity, and lots of other things, which happens to be lots of fun as well.”
Where: South Coast Repertory’s Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Oct. 16
Price: $28 to $58
Contact: (714) 708-5555