About hot fashions for the fall, New York’s young playwrights agree. No living room is complete without fake wood paneling. Denim’s also in—preferably cheap-looking and distressed but, in deference to the film and TV stars wearing it on so many stages, still flattering to every gym-toned curve. Over the fsst-thunk of cans of Bud, the deadbeat dad or haranguing wife will abandon the old rules of grammar (“You know how much food stamps we got left for this month?”) and drop F-bombs by the score.
It’s not new for American playwrights to dramatize family troubles among the provincials: Eugene O’Neill and Sam Shepard touched greatness with Desire Under the Elms and Buried Child, respectively. But the weird synchronicity that now brings three such plays by three young writers to the stage reveals fresh perils for the genre. New York audiences, even Off Broadway, have grown awfully prosperous and sophisticated; the people in these plays are neither. A playwright who fails to bring a light touch and a big heart to the job can make a theater seem like the blue-collar pavilion at the zoo.
Kate Fodor, bless her sympathetic soul, has just the right qualities. Her thoughtful and affecting 100 Saints You Should Know begins with Theresa (Janel Moloney) scrubbing a toilet. There’s something so direct, so matter-of-fact about showing her on the job—most plays of this kind would just have her complaining about it to her alienated kid—that Fodor’s story ennobles her, like a Dutch master immortalizing a laundress at work.
After a young priest stumbles upon Theresa cleaning the rectory bathroom, it becomes clear that Fodor has set herself a double challenge. Like Doubt and The Busy World Is Hushed, this is an Anguished Cleric play. Father Matthew (Jeremy Shamos) has grown lonely, and his craving for simple human contact has driven him back to the home of his widowed Irish mother (Lois Smith). Fodor falls into the schematic now and then, but when a terrible accident draws all the characters together, the cross-hatching makes both stories sing.
All of this might have yielded little more than a Raymond Carver story if not for an exquisite cast, expertly directed by Ethan McSweeny. Thanks to some go-for-broke choices, impressive young Zoe Kazan makes the daughter seem part cherub and part imp—a touchingly vulnerable hellion. Smith and Shamos are their usual finely wrought selves, the latter never more so than during a meaty soliloquy of Father Matthew’s. Nobody could mistake this play for a zoo, not when Fodor lets an inhabitant speak with such eloquence about the torment in his soul.
Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity, on the other hand, indulges in pretty much all the genre’s grubby clichés. On a stage decorated in familiar hues of overripe squash, layabout Herb (Michael T. Weiss) and his voluble wife, Martha (Kristen Johnston), drink, brawl, have noisy sex just offstage, brawl some more, and wonder what to do about supersmart young Billy (Jesse Eisenberg). Promising little feints here and there don’t lead the story anywhere in particular, a tedium compounded by the acting—which, as tends to happen in a cast known mainly for the quick takes of screen work, skips and stutters without sustaining any real flow.
Without the theatrical flair or narrative drive that Fodor and McSweeny bring to 100 Saints, Scarcity generates little of the humanity, either. I’m sure it wasn’t Thurber’s intention, but the result feels opportunistic: Martha’s question about food stamps draws a laugh from the crowd.
At the Rattlestick, there’s yet more wood paneling on the walls, and yet more down-market gothic on display. In American Sligo, Adam Rapp depicts the final night in the wrestling career of Art “Crazy Train” Sligo (Guy Boyd). The story takes a while to get moving, and downshifts through a couple of endings before finally jamming on the brakes. In between, it again shows an off-putting willingness to use the narrow horizons of the characters—the tawdry drug habit, the romance with the girl at Piggly Wiggly—to mount a case for thinking, as one of Sligo’s sons puts it, that everybody is “a sad, pathetic sack of shit.”
Still, there’s no denying Rapp’s febrile talent. Whenever the terrific Paul Sparks roams the stage as Sligo’s coked-up son, the sense of menace grows oppressive. His violent despair might be less attractive than Father Matthew’s spiritual yearning, but it yields a bit of the same result: the feeling that we’re not looking upon some strange creatures, but an inescapable part of ourselves.
Danny Hoch’s Till the Break of Dawn couldn’t be further from a diorama about hard-luck provincial woe, and I thank him profusely for that. In his first non-solo play, he depicts a group of young New Yorkers—teachers, rappers, activists, lovers—traveling to Cuba for a music festival. The story is endless, the acting’s all over the map, and if I thought too hard about a couple of plot points I’m sure they’d fall to splinters. But some misfires are more exciting than others, and Hoch has written one of the most exciting I can recall.
Certainly it’s the most fiercely dialectical. Almost all the characters do here is argue—about politics, art, love, you name it. By the end of the play, everybody’s worldview has been challenged, their principles questioned, their naïveté (not least about Cuba, putative dreamland of revolution) flung in their faces. “They say you’re the Hip-Hop Generation, but y’all the complaining generation,” says an American exile who mocks their big talk. “Just do the work! It’s not glamorous, it’s hard. You don’t get no T-shirt. There’s no theme song. You’re not a hero. It’s just work!” Like Will Power, Rinne Groff, and some other leading young playwrights, Hoch wants to get us moving, but only after busting up our illusions about how easy it’ll be. This is a voice we need to hear.
100 Saints You Should Know
By Kate Fodor. Playwrights Horizons. Closed September 30.
By Lucy Thurber. Atlantic Theater Company. Through October 14.
By Adam Rapp. Rattlestick Theatre. Through October 14.
Till the Break of Dawn
By Danny Hoch. Culture Project at Abrons Art Center. Through October 21.