Elections. Breakups. Thanksgivings from hell. Lisa Kron’s new play, “The Wake,” follows a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown: Type-A journalist Ellen, whose certainty about politics and love gets blown out of the water.
Opening this month at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, “The Wake” promises to generate plenty of conversation -- no matter whom you voted for in the last election.
Kron’s comedy of deprecation and provocative social critique is part Sedaris, part Kushner, yet utterly her own. Her Obie-winning solo show, “2.5 Minute Ride,” examined Holocaust survivor guilt by way of roller coasters. “WELL,” for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for lead actress, looked at racism via food allergies and her childhood in Lansing, Mich.
Kron teaches playwriting at Yale University and is working on a musical with Jeanine Tesori (“Shrek the Musical,” “Caroline, or Change”). She took a break from rehearsals of “The Wake” to dish about art, Obama and her love-hate relationship with L.A.
“The Wake” takes us back to the contested election of 2000, Sept. 11, and the 2004 election. Are we going to have fun, or is this going be a post-traumatic stress experience for both Democrats and Republicans?
The play spans the Bush years, but it’s not about that time period. It’s about the bigger question of the American character: the assumption in this country that there’s only so far we can fall. That we will always revert to prosperity and stability. Why do we think that? What is that belief based on? It’s a kind of collective blind spot.
The play is also about what happens when your personal ethics diverge with the people you’re closest to. You thought you felt the same way, but actually there’s something so different between you. And there’s a lot of humor in the play.
How do you see Ellen, your protagonist, as emblematic of America?
Ellen has an idea of herself as capable of infinite expansion. Her heart has never been broken. Even those of us on the left, who think we see things clearly, are very invested in believing that the way we live is ultimately sustainable. That our comfortable lives won’t go away and that we’re not hurting anybody.
The right and the left are always filled with self-justification. Writing about politics and belief is difficult because those of us who want to criticize politics are caught up in the very thing we’re objecting to. We are that thing too.
Do you think politics ultimately boils down to emotion?
All emotions are beliefs. When you feel something, it either confirms or challenges something you believe. The writer Charles Baxter says every time we talk about another person, we’re defining ourselves. Whether we’re referring to our sister or George Bush, we’re basically saying: “That’s exactly right” or “I would never do that.” That extends to politics. We’re constantly aligning ourselves. It’s a process of individuation.
One of the play’s themes is how blind we are to our true desires. Ellen finds herself attracted to a woman, Amy.
But it’s not a coming-out play. The fact that Ellen’s transformation involves a woman is incidental. Ellen has a great life with her male partner -- she didn’t know she was missing anything. Then suddenly Amy shows up. She offers Ellen an emotional permeability she’s never imagined.
The love scenes between Amy and Ellen are particularly intense. How are you approaching the staging?
It’s almost impossible to find women who can play sexuality that’s not coy, that’s not a mating call for men -- you know, hair flipping. But these actresses have gotten on this ride in a big way. The seduction scene is pretty hot. They’re steaming it up.
You’re a founding member of the satirical Five Lesbian Brothers. How has being a lesbian informed expectations of your work?
I started out in the ‘80s at the Wow Café, a lesbian collective in New York. It changed my life. It was a place that was not invested in doctrinaire political correctness and therefore enormously alive. And because we were lesbians, no one was paying attention to us. If you’re only doing something for yourself, you can do incredible things. There’s no explaining. Being out became such a given.
It was very interesting when I took my work out to regional theaters. One of my first solo shows was “101 Humiliating Stories.” It wasn’t political at all. But about 10 minutes into the show, I would casually identify myself as a lesbian. I remember watching men in the audience recoil, like, “Nobody told me I signed up for this!” They just assumed it was OK to identify with my humor.
A female director won the best director Oscar for the first time in 82 years. Do you think women have become stronger advocates for themselves?
We’re all still working on that. It’s amazing. [Director Leigh Silverman] has to keep pushing the actresses in our show to come forward, literally. Not to shrink back, physically or vocally, when their characters argue about ideas.
Ambition is complicated for everybody, including me. I’m not straight, but I am a Midwesterner! Don’t get too big for your britches and all that. But ambition is the fuel in your car. You just want to intersect with the world in a big way.
Who would you say does ambition well?
The lack of need to be deferential can allow other things to happen. Look at Rachel Maddow or Ellen DeGeneres.
“The Wake” was commissioned by the Taper while Bush was still president. Has Obama’s presidency refracted any of your ideas?
In the worlds of money and power, you start to realize there are people who just thrive on chaos. That’s part of what’s happening to Obama right now, with the Republicans. He brings them into the room and listens. He believes a certain dynamic can be transformed. But what if it can’t? Now if I’m asking that question, he asked it a long time ago. Obama plays a long game like no politician I’ve seen in my lifetime. He doesn’t get caught in the talking heads like Clinton did. We’ll see if it works.
Where do you get your news?
Bill Moyers. Kevin Phillips. Even Eliot Spitzer’s saying if we think things are getting better, we’re deluded. States are literally seizing up -- Californians know this very well.
You lived in Los Angeles for a time. Discuss.
L.A. has amazing things and amazingly talented people, but the layout encourages atomization. Living in a place where people’s garage doors face the street makes me apoplectic. I loved Griffith Park but I would always get lost. I’d find myself in some ravine as it was getting dark, realizing I was surrounded by coyotes and rattlesnakes. I was going to be that woman on the 6 o’clock news people would watch and say, “Why did we pay to airlift that crazy woman out the woods?”
If you could change something about yourself without too much pain, what would it be?
Answering my e-mail. I’m appallingly bad at it. I can’t answer an e-mail quickly. It takes hours. How do other people do it? I know, this is actually my answer to your question.
In the Internet age, what makes theater still relevant?
Theater’s operating principle is based on a universal human truth: All of us are completely innocent of the coming moment. No matter who you are, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. When we come up against that, it makes us feel alive. Accidents, sporting events, deathbeds, birth: That’s when we consciously feel the stuff of life.
We like to watch characters because we get to see the way they define themselves, but also what they can’t see. Theater is always about the blind spot. That’s what makes it so compelling. None of us see the whole picture of ourselves.