Teen’s biting satire of ‘Spider-Man’

L.A.'s Blank Theatre Company is giving a teen playwright an opportunity to mine satiric laughter from Julie Taymor’s travails directing the troubled Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

The 19th annual Young Playwrights Festival at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood includes “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Lights,” a 17-year-old winner’s poke at the onstage accidents and technical malfunctions that contributed to Taymor’s ouster as director of the $70-million Broadway production. Taymor is one of the characters.

On June 18, Taymor, celebrated as stage director of “The Lion King” before her Broadway rep took a hit with the Spider-Man musical, is scheduled to give the closing keynote address in downtown Los Angeles at the annual national conference of nonprofit theaters sponsored by their leading service organization, Theatre Communications Group. As it happens, the Blank that day will offer the “Spider-Man” satire as part of a bill of three works.

“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Lights” is by Adam Brodheim, a New York City high school junior; it’s one of 12 winning entries that will be staged Thursday through June 26 in the Blank’s festival. The budget for props, costumes and set pieces totals $70, says Daniel Henning, the Blank’s artistic director -- or one-millionth that of the show that inspired it. Brodheim’s play will be part of the bill presented June 16-19, the third of the festival’s four weeks.


Brodheim’s script was one of about 150 submissions from 14- to 19-year-olds living in about 25 states; Henning says he wasn’t expecting much when he sat down to read it -- assuming it would be just “a silly comedy” inspired by the brickbats the late-night comics were throwing at Taymor.

In the play, actors playing Spider-Man and his nemesis, the Green Goblin, spend the entire running time of about 25 minutes hanging suspended above the stage because -- as happened repeatedly in Taymor’s production -- something in the complex stage machinery has gone haywire.

But their back-and-forth dialogue and interactions with the Taymor character didn’t just make fun of the musical, Henning discovered; the play had something cogent to say about what motivates actors to put themselves in positions that can lead to indignity or injury. “In his fun, satiric way, he’s asking some very serious questions about how we treat actors,” Henning said. “We didn’t choose it because it’s a hot topic, but ultimately because it’s a well-constructed play and its ideas and issues are solid.”

Reached by phone, Brodheim said he wrote the play for the annual spring festival in which students’ plays are staged at Hunter College High School, but he missed the deadline. Then he saw a poster for the Blank’s young playwrights’ contest on the English department’s bulletin board. The Upper East Side’s loss became Hollywood’s gain.


Brodheim said he hasn’t seen “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but all the publicity about the show’s mishaps had made it the talk of theatrically inclined students at his school, where his specialty has been lighting and sound design rather than writing. “I just tried to write something that would be as funny as possible,” said the young showbiz satirist, whose other scripts were for school assignments -- and were never produced.

Henning says the Blank’s young playwrights festival stands apart from others because its methods and aims are not primarily educational but professional. Each teen playwright is paired with a mentor and assigned a director and cast, drawn from the ranks of L.A. theater and screen pros. Though the productions are minimalist, the shows are rehearsed for two weeks and staged four times each. Over the years, 10 of the winning plays have graduated to the Blank’s seasons.

Brodheim’s mentor is Jeff Greenstein, who as a television writer-producer has overseen “Desperate Housewives,” “Will & Grace” and “Friends.” The director is Jane Lanier, an actor-dancer who was nominated for a 1989 Tony Award for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and a 1999 Drama Desk Award for “Fosse.”

Other mentors and directors this year include playwrights Jon Marans, whose “Old Wicked Songs” was a 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and David Rambo (“God’s Man in Texas”), actress Barbara Bain, and Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of Pasadena’s Theatre @Boston Court.

Henning laughed heartily when asked whether he plans to invite Taymor, the person, to watch Taymor, the character. As for how the producers and director aim to keep Spider-Man and the Green Goblin hanging for the duration of the show, Henning said, “We haven’t exactly worked out how we’re going to do that. I imagine it’ll be something clever, and not high-tech.”

The retooled, post-Taymor “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is scheduled to open June 14 after its attrition-taking long march of previews. Meanwhile, as Brodheim prepares to take his satiric shot in L.A., it has dawned on him that he faces the risk of being hoisted on his own petard if all doesn’t go as planned.

“I still can’t quite believe that I’ll see the two people hanging there, right-side up, or maybe upside-down. The closer it gets, the more concerned I get that people might get hurt, and my ‘Spider-Man’ would be as bad as the one on Broadway in terms of injuries.”